NASA is a long way from returning the shuttle to flight and has been less than forthcoming with detailed plans in response to recommendations made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the group assigned to oversee the agency's progress announced Tuesday.
Writing in its interim report, the Stafford Covey Task Group said that although NASA is addressing all of the 29 findings and recommendations of the investigative board's final report, a fact the group thinks is positive, some aspects of NASA's efforts leave much room for improvement.
"Not surprisingly, the progress on the many recommendations is uneven," the report states. "As time passes and the interval before the next scheduled flight diminishes, the enormity of the remaining task looms."
"Several of the technical responses to specific recommendations have made substantial progress, although none have been completed. Others, such as preparation of a detailed plan for the implementation of an Independent Technical Engineering Authority (ITEA), are still in planning and some time away from implementation, and a long time away from evaluation."
The ITEA is a specific recommendation from the investigative board that calls for a separate organization within NASA to have final authority over whether or not something is safe when a problem comes up.
NASA officials have said the ITEA is not to be confused with the engineering organization recently set up by the space agency that is headquartered at Langley Research Center in Virginia.
NASA is targeting Sept. 12 as the launch date for STS-114, a shuttle Atlantis mission to the international space station and a test flight for the new hardware and procedures required as a result of the Columbia tragedy.
The interim report is based on information the task group has received from NASA as of Dec. 10.
"It is still much too soon to predict either the success of implementation or the timing of the next flight," the report said.
The report's summary specifically calls into question NASA's response to some of the Stafford Covey Task Group's queries and expresses concerns that the space agency won't follow through on some of its required return to flight actions, drawing up detailed plans but not executing them.
"Detailed plans for many of the recommendations have not been forthcoming. NASA has not been timely in some of their responses to Task Group requests for information," the report said.
The Stafford Covey Task Group was formed following the Aug. 26, 2003 release of the CAIB report and is being led by veteran astronauts Tom Stafford and Richard Covey.
The task group's charter is to assess independently whether or not NASA has met all of the findings and recommendations of the CAIB report, but they will not report on the overall readiness of the shuttle program to resume flying.
"As one member put it: We are in the position of an umpire calling balls and strikes in a zone defined by the CAIB recommendations," the report said.
The immediate reaction to the interim report from NASA was diplomatic.
"In their own admission the Stafford Covey Task Group says this report is positive in tone, so we're very appreciative of the all the work they have done to this point," said Mike Rein, a NASA spokesman at Kennedy Space Center.
"We know that they are a very important part of the process as we work toward our number one goal of returning the shuttle safely to flight," Rein said. "We will be taking their report and reviewing it during the next few days, evaluating their assessments and moving on so we can meet our launch date of Sept. 12."