WASHINGTON - Even before an independent panel issues its report on the disaster that claimed the shuttle Columbia and the lives of its crew of seven, NASA has apparently concluded that no big time-consuming changes will be required before the shuttle fleet returns to space, perhaps as early as December.
The report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is tentatively scheduled for release in a month, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials say it might address problems they are not aware of. But they say that with fixes to the shuttle hardware and a shuffling of the management of its manned spaceflight program, they should be able to resume missions.
Gen. Michael Kostelnik, NASA's associate administrator for the International Space Station and the space shuttle, said last week that it was his "gut feeling" that the shuttle could be launched again by the end of March next year, though the program is tentatively aiming for December.
Although the report could have surprises, NASA spokesman Robert Jacobs said, "the idea is not to have a lot of smoking guns in the report itself." The chairman of the investigation board, Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., has said repeatedly that the board would make recommendations as soon as it could agree on them.
According to members of the board and officials at NASA, those include: fixing the bipod ramp, which helps attach the orbiter to the external fuel tank, so it does not shed foam and possibly fixing other foam as well; fixing the cameras trained on the vehicle during launch so any damage to the shuttle caused by debris can be seen; and fixing the bolt catchers that protect the external tank and the orbiter.
None of them will mean a lengthy delay in returning to flight, NASA officials say. They have adopted a motto: "Find it, fix it and fly it."
But not everyone is happy with that idea. "They're only talking about technical stuff, and they may be denying they have organizational problems," said an aide to the House Science Committee, who spoke on condition that he not be more specifically identified.