NASA chief to rely on shuttle engineers' OK

New administrator says Discovery can launch even if some goals not met

April 19, 2005|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

NASA's new administrator said yesterday that he's willing to launch the shuttle Discovery even if the space agency hasn't met all the safety goals for a return to flight that were set by a panel that investigated the Columbia disaster.

In his first news conference, just five days after his confirmation by the Senate, Michael D. Griffin said he will rely on the expertise of NASA's top engineers to determine whether Discovery is ready to fly.

"I have enormous confidence in the shuttle team," he said. "My focus will be on learning everything about the process that has gone into fixing the problems that led to the loss of [Columbia] and moving forward. ... I will make certain everyone has given me the most convincing arguments ... before we go ahead."

Griffin, until last week head of the space department at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, also said he wants to shrink the five-year gap between the planned retirement of the shuttle in 2010 and the launch of a planned Crew Exploration Vehicle that will take astronauts to the moon.

The shuttle Discovery is on the pad at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., where launch teams are preparing for liftoff sometime between May 12 and June 3. But NASA is still addressing unresolved safety issues raised by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB).

An independent panel co-chaired by former Apollo commanders Thomas P. Stafford and Richard O. Covey has been gradually "closing," or checking off issues raised by the CAIB report as the space agency has addressed them.

In an interim report in January, the panel listed several unresolved items, including development of a technology for in-orbit repair of the shuttle's thermal protection tiles and the reinforced "carbon-carbon" panels that protect the spacecraft's wings during re-entry.

Columbia broke apart Feb. 1, 2003, when the heat of re-entry entered the left wing through a hole punched by a piece of insulation that broke away from the shuttle's external tank during launch.

Griffin said it's not yet clear whether spacewalking astronauts can make such a repair, or whether an attempt could make the problem even worse by increasing turbulence and surface heating.

"The clearance for a return to flight cannot be a go or no-go decision based on `Can you repair a tile while in orbit?,'" he said. "This is not a simple issue."

Griffin added, "I intend to listen very carefully to what Stafford-Covey says." But if NASA's top experts "recommend that we should launch despite not having filled all the squares on Stafford-Covey, that's something we should consider."

At yesterday's news conference, Griffin also said that as soon as Discovery returns safely to Earth, he will launch a review to weigh the pros and cons of reviving the cancelled final manned servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

He said he hoped to speed up the development of NASA's next manned craft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, so that the United States does not go four or five years after the 2010 retirement of the shuttle fleet without manned access to space.

"I lived through the period from 1975 through 1981, when we weren't flying Apollo and we weren't flying shuttle missions," he said. "There was no one left untouched."

The administrator sought to reassure employees at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., that they would have a key role in the manned missions to the moon being planned under the Bush administration's vision for space exploration.

But he warned that the vision would bring some "dislocations" at some NASA centers and among its contractors.

"We really need to face up to the fact that we are changing what we are doing with the U.S. civil space program," he said. "I believe it is for the better. There will be enterprises and individuals who will be better off after the change, and others who will be worse."

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