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NASA targets March launch for space shuttle
( 2003-09-09 10:26) (Agencies)

NASA on Monday set a March launch date for the first space shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster, but added that safety, not schedule requirements, would decide when the shuttle goes into space.

The national space agency, in a 78-page blueprint for its return to flight, also vowed to redesign the shuttle to make it safer and to change its own culture to improve communication and encourage dissenting views.

"We will be safety driven and not schedule driven. We will be milestone driven and not schedule driven," NASA associate administrator William Readdy said in a news conference at the Johnson Space Center.

"There's a challenge there. There's very much a can-do culture that we'd like to keep. There was a culture that stifled communication that somehow we have to eliminate," he said. "We don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water."

The proposed March launch, with a launch window extending from March 11 to April 6, was primarily a planning target, Readdy admitted, timed for a hookup with the International Space Station and a daytime takeoff to give NASA engineers a good look at the shuttle as it hurtles toward space.

If safety concerns delayed the launch indefinitely, "then so be it," he said.

Columbia disintegrated above Texas as it glided toward landing in Florida on Feb. 1, killing the seven astronauts on board.


The independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board appointed to find the tragedy's cause said in a report released two weeks ago the shuttle was doomed by loose insulation foam that struck its wing shortly after takeoff and blamed a NASA culture that, in its haste to get shuttles into space, ignored the problem despite warnings from its own people.

The foam damaged the wing's heat shield which allowed the intense heat of re-entry into earth's atmosphere to penetrate the shuttle and break it apart more than 40 miles above northern Texas.

Internal e-mails released after the accident showed that lower level NASA engineers warned of a possible catastrophe, but their superiors either never saw the warnings or believed them to be overblown.

"Quite frankly, we missed something, we screwed up," Readdy said.

NASA said it would make changes in the shuttle to eliminate the loose foam problem, including the use of heaters to replace the need for insulation, and look for other potential sources of danger to eliminate.

It said it also was testing materials and procedures for repairing shuttle damage during flight and evaluating the concept of using the space station as a refuge for stranded shuttle crews. The investigation board criticized NASA for a lack of contingency plans during flight emergencies

Also, under consideration is a plan to put cameras on the shuttle so that its exterior can be examined for damage after it reaches orbit, the agency said.

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