NASA has not completely met — “closed” — three of the 15 safety recommendations for returning to flight, according to an independent oversight panel, the Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group. The advisory task group, which held its final meeting June 27, was established in 2003 to monitor NASA’s compliance with the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB).
The three outstanding issues are eliminating all sources of ice or foam debris that could damage the shuttle orbiter, hardening its thermal protection system against hits by debris, and developing a capability to make repairs while in orbit.
The Stafford-Covey group reviewed NASA’s progress and concluded that the agency has largely met the intent of the CAIB recommendations, although more remains to be done on each of the three issues. The oversight board did not feel delaying the next shuttle flight from its planned July launch until September would make the flight significantly safer. The panel noted that some of the fixes — the on-orbit repair kit, for example — would require flight testing in any event.
Panel member and former astronaut James Adamson acknowledged improvements in eliminating foam debris coming from the shuttle’s external tank, and he explained, “The damage to Columbia couldn’t happen again.” It’s no longer possible, the panel noted, because the source of the foam debris has been removed.
When panel co-chair and former astronaut Richard Covey was asked if he would willingly go on the next mission, he replied, “I would have no concern about flying.”
The Stafford-Covey report goes to NASA adminstrator Michael Griffin June 28. The STS-114 mission, with the orbiter Discovery and a crew of seven astronauts, will undergo a final flight readiness review June 29 and 30. The July launch window opens on the 13th and runs to the 31st.
Commenting on the oversight group’s final meeting, Griffin said, “I anticipate, and expect, a healthy debate in our upcoming flight readiness review …. We appreciate this input.”