NASA urged to intensify shuttle-wing inspections

Columbia accident board also calls for more photos of orbiter while in space

April 18, 2003|By Nick Anderson | Nick Anderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The Columbia accident board, in its initial recommendations to help prevent another space shuttle disaster, urged NASA yesterday to improve inspections of a key heat-resisting material on the orbiters' wings.

Potential problems with one of Columbia's wings are a focus of the investigation into the craft's disintegration as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere Feb. 1.

The accident board also called on NASA to get more pictures of the shuttles when they are in space.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe swiftly embraced the proposals. He said engineers are studying the wing-inspection issue. And he noted that the photo recommendation has been addressed under a new agreement with a U.S. intelligence agency that operates spy satellites.

The two suggestions are just the first of many expected from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. "We intend to act on every single one of their recommendations without fail," O'Keefe said.

Yesterday's recommendations, issued in advance of a final report expected this summer, comes at a critical moment for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The three remaining shuttles have been grounded indefinitely while investigators seek the cause of the Columbia accident.

On April 26, to fill in for the absent U.S. orbiters, Russia will launch a Soyuz spacecraft with an astronaut and a cosmonaut to replace a three-man crew aboard the international space station.

The launch is part of a series of manned and unmanned flights Russia plans to help maintain the space station after the Columbia disaster.

But U.S. officials are anxious to put the shuttle fleet back into service quickly to resume construction of the $100 billion station and bolster its capacity to perform scientific experiments. The shuttles can carry far more cargo and a larger crew than the Soyuz vehicles.

Under the most optimistic timetable, O'Keefe said during a luncheon at the National Press Club, shuttles would fly again by year's end. That is slightly later than a tentative plan to resume flights by the fall that NASA previously announced.

How quickly NASA can restart the shuttle fleet depends largely on the findings of the accident board.

The board, led by retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., is investigating whether pinholes and hidden breaches in the Columbia's left wing allowed superheated gas to penetrate the orbiter and cause it to blow apart. Investigators also are trying to determine whether such possible defects were worsened during Columbia's Jan. 16 liftoff, when chunks of foam insulation fell from an external fuel tank and struck the wing.

To help prevent mishaps, the board said yesterday that NASA should intensify its inspections of a "reinforced carbon-carbon" thermal protection system. That composite material protects the critical leading edge of the shuttles' wings.

Nick Anderson is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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