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Space shuttles likely to be grounded till 2005

It could be January or March of next year before NASA is ready to resume space shuttle missions, a top NASA administrator said Tuesday.
Shuttle Atlantis Is Readied For Flight
Bert Schraff and Chris Moore, workers from the United Space Alliance, repair heat-shield tiles on the belly of the space shuttle Atlantis at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.Matt Stroshane / Getty Images file
/ Source: Reuters

It could be January or March of next year before NASA is ready to launch its first space shuttle mission since Columbia disintegrated in the sky above Texas in February 2003, a top NASA administrator said Tuesday.

NASA has been targeting a launch date in September or October, but that looks unlikely because of continuing research into air flow around the shuttle’s huge external fuel tank, said Michael Kostelnik, NASA's shuttle and space station director.

He said new research models required a broader look at the fuel tank issue, which was critical because investigators believe insulation foam broke loose from the tank, struck Columbia’s wing and caused the spacecraft’s demise by damaging its heat shield.

“It is very likely that the delay associated with this extra work on the tank will take us beyond the opportunity to fly in this big opening window (in September),” Kostelnik told reporters at a NASA conference on the shuttle. “The next credible window that we think all the technical things will be accomplished is that opening window in January.”

But, because of flight restrictions now in place, Kostelnik said the January slot would give NASA only a few days to launch, which may be too brief to complete final preparations.

The next possibility would come in March, when the launch window would last several weeks, he said.

Safety vs. schedule
The nation’s three remaining shuttles have been grounded since the Columbia disaster that killed the seven astronauts on board.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board appointed to probe the tragedy said it happened because NASA had become more concerned with meeting flight schedules than with safety. The agency must fulfill a list of safety recommendations from the investigation board before it can launch the shuttle again.

At the same time, Kostelnik said NASA needs to get the shuttle flying as soon as possible to  perform maintenance on the international space station and to complete its construction. Supplies and crew members currently are being ferried to the station aboard Russian space capsules.

Chances of survival
Speakers at Tuesday’s conference said NASA was making good progress in meeting the new safety requirements, but admitted it would be difficult to greatly increase the astronauts’ chances of survival in a shuttle accident.

Under a space plan announced by President Bush in January, shuttle flights are supposed to be phased out by 2010 ahead of proposed manned flights to the moon and Mars.

“Within the remaining service life (of the shuttle), it’s just not credible that we’re going to dramatically change any aspect of this vehicle,” Kostelnik said.