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From Orlando Sentinel
NASA set to revamp shuttle system
Internal report calls for sweeping changes before return to flight; Columbia investigators scheduled to release findings tomorrow
By Michael Cabbage
Sentinel Space Editor
Originally published August 25, 2003, 12:45 PM EDT

WASHINGTON -- NASA is planning sweeping changes to the space shuttle's operation and management before returning to flight, according to an internal agency road map for safely resuming launches.

The changes are detailed in a 121-page report titled "NASA's Implementation Plan for Return to Flight and Beyond." An Aug. 5 draft was obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.



"The goal is not only to fix the specific cause of the Columbia accident," the report says, "but also to put in place the comprehensive engineering, operational and managerial improvements that will provide the safety assurance required to return to flight and avoid the risk of overconfidence."

Part of the report outlines how NASA plans to respond to five preliminary recommendations made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board during its nearly seven-month investigation. The rest lists 18 other areas identified by NASA that must be fixed before returning to flight, as well as three longer-term actions.

Many of the actions anticipate recommendations likely to be included in the investigation board's final report, which is scheduled for release tomorrow.

Specific actions in the NASA plan include:

  • Changes in the Mission Management Team that oversees shuttle flights.

  • An overhaul of NASA's safety organization.

  • A long-term redesign of the orbiter's thermal protection system to make it more impact-resistant.

    Unfortunately there will be no sacrifical leading edge fitment to protect the RCC LEADING EDGE on launch (and which will automatically burn away during the high temps of re-entry. However see highlight section below.

  • An extensive redesign of several areas on the shuttle's external fuel tank.

  • Use of the international space station as a "safe haven" where shuttle astronauts with a damaged ship could live for up to six months while waiting for a rescue flight.

    The plan remains a work in progress. According to Aug. 21 internal briefing papers obtained by the Sentinel, NASA has established a Return To Flight Action Center that will begin an immediate review of the board's final report Tuesday. Managers will compare it with the agency's implementation plan and make revisions as necessary.

    A final version is scheduled to be reviewed by senior NASA managers Sept. 2 and presented to members of Congress on Sept. 5. Public release and distribution to a task force overseeing NASA's implementation of the board's report is scheduled for Sept. 9.

    NASA hopes to resume flying its three remaining shuttles next spring. But space-agency officials have acknowledged it could take longer, depending on engineering issues and what the investigation board's report requires.

    Several of the plan's actions would alter management policies and safety procedures to change the NASA culture that existed before the Columbia accident.

    The shuttle broke apart over Texas while returning home Feb. 1, killing seven astronauts. Investigators have determined that a chunk of foam insulation estimated to weigh 1.67 pounds broke free from Columbia's external fuel tank during launch and struck the leading edge of the shuttle's left wing. The blow is thought to have knocked a 6- to-10-inch hole in a thermal panel on the leading edge, allowing 3,000-degree gases to destroy the wing and trigger Columbia's breakup as it re-entered the atmosphere.

    The investigation board has determined that management and organizational problems were as much of a factor in the disaster as technical issues. Managers became comfortable with foam strikes on previous missions despite a requirement that debris not strike the shuttle. And concerns of lower-level engineers about the strike on Columbia never reached upper management.

    "NASA is reassessing its entire safety program," the report says. "Taken together, these concrete organizational steps will provide the foundation for a revitalized safety culture within NASA."

    The plan includes new guidelines for NASA's Mission Management Team. Despite a requirement that the team meet daily, managers convened only five times during Columbia's 16-day flight. The issue of whether the shuttle was seriously damaged by the foam strike received scant attention after an analysis suggested there was no safety issue.

    "A primary goal of improving the MMT [Mission Management Team] processes is to ensure that all engineering and operational concerns are heard and dispositioned at the appropriate level of management, including those brought forth anonymously," the report says.

    Several changes are proposed: mandatory daily meetings; more specific responsibilities for MMT members; formal processes for reviewing analyses and issues during missions; annual training simulations for MMT members to learn to better deal with problems.

    NASA also is reassessing a wide range of safety policies and requirements. The reviews will examine: how problems in flight are tracked and resolved; waivers that make exceptions to shuttle program requirements; analyses of critical components and their potential to fail; and the process used to certify that the shuttle is ready for launch. Some of the reviews, such as the critical components' analysis, may not be completed until the end of 2005.

    In addition, NASA's Safety and Mission Assurance Program is getting a top-down review. A new independent safety-review organization -- an expected recommendation by the investigation board -- already is being set up at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia.

    NASA also will commission a study to determine the effectiveness of quality-control inspections during ground processing at Kennedy Space Center.

    Immediately after the 1986 Challenger accident, there were 44,000 Government Mandatory Inspection Points that the shuttle passed through while being prepared for flight at KSC. By 1995, that number had been cut to 22,000, and was slashed again in 1998 to 8,500.

    Similar reductions occurred at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the shuttle's external fuel tanks are manufactured. After Challenger, there were 5,000 government inspection points. After a review that ended in 2000, the number was cut to 228, then raised to 586 last year.

    Other parts of the new plan detail technical changes designed to prevent future shuttle missions from suffering the same fate as Columbia.

    A broad redesign of the external tank will eliminate a foam ramp where insulation broke free during Columbia's flight and several others. Additional modifications will deal with potential debris from ice buildup on a line that carries superchilled liquid oxygen propellant.

    Two other tank areas susceptible to foam loss are being examined for redesign. And new tests are being added to make sure foam is properly sprayed on the tank. All the changes are expected by the end of the year.

    NASA also has begun a study to determine the maximum size of debris that can strike the orbiter without doing serious damage. More than 100,000 possible debris scenarios are expected to be analyzed by next June.

    "NASA's primary corrective measure to the Columbia-type accident is to ensure the elimination of all ascent debris of a size sufficient to inflict unacceptable damage to the space shuttle vehicle," the report says.

    Longer term, the report calls for redesigning parts of the shuttle's thermal protection system to make them less vulnerable to impact.

    This so-called hardening of the orbiter would include adding a new protective coating to the wings' leading edges and changing the attachment hardware. Other proposals include development of tougher heat tiles for the shuttle's belly and a redesign of doors covering the landing-gear compartment and external-fuel-tank hardware to better protect against high temperatures. No timetable is given to complete the work.

    "Where practical, improvements will be included in the return-to-flight effort," the report says. "Otherwise, the improvements will be identified as a long-term upgrade."

    Other actions are designed to detect and deal with problems in orbit.

    The extent of Columbia's damage was unknown because of limited photos of the debris strike during launch and a decision not to request satellite or telescope pictures of the shuttle in orbit. Had shuttle managers known of the damage, however, there would have been little they could have done about it.

    Four of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's five preliminary recommendations deal specifically with these issues. NASA already has begun working on them. One calls for the ability to inspect and repair the shuttle's thermal protection system in orbit. Another would make on-orbit photos of each shuttle flight a requirement. Two additional recommendations would improve photo coverage of launches, using cameras on the ground as well as aboard the shuttle.

    NASA's plan is unclear about whether an on-orbit repair method for the reinforced carbon-carbon panels that line the wing's leading edges -- the likely location of Columbia's fatal breach -- will be ready before the shuttle returns to flight next year. The board specifically recommended developing that capability before the next launch. However, the report suggests astronauts might not be able to inspect and repair the shuttle's protective heat armor until 2005 -- the date of a planned mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope -- unless it is docked at the space station.

    The NASA plan would use the station as a safe haven for shuttle crews with damaged ships. A Johnson Space Center study found six people could live on the station for up to six months while awaiting a rescue flight. That assumes three astronauts, either shuttle crew members or the station's inhabitants, would head home during the first week in the emergency Soyuz capsule docked to the outpost. If no one went home, the station could support nine people for 97 days.

    However, even with the safe-haven option, shuttle crews would need the ability to repair tiles and leading-edge panels away from the station. An engine failure during launch could prevent the shuttle from reaching the necessary orbit to get to the outpost. An orbital debris strike could cause damage after undocking.

    "Of course, saving the crew is the most important thing but safe haven might not necessarily save the vehicle," a NASA manager said. "And we can't afford to lose another vehicle."

    NASA also plans to review computer-analysis tools used by engineers to help assess risk to the shuttle in flight. Those include the Crater program used to predict damage to the shuttle's protective heat armor from foam strikes and the Bumper program that assesses risk from orbital debris.

    The thoroughness of NASA's return to flight effort will become clear Tuesday when the investigation board's final report is released. The space agency's challenge will be to come up with an implementation plan that meets both the spirit and the letter of the board's recommendations.

    "Are all of the [shuttle] program's actions going to satisfy the board's recommendations?" the NASA manager said. "We don't know. But people are on pins and needles waiting for the board's report."
  • Copyright 2003, Orlando Sentinel

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    Analysis: Milestone for Nasa
    By Helen Briggs
    BBC News Online science reporter


    The report into the Columbia space shuttle disaster has far-reaching implications for Nasa and will shape the future of human space flight for decades to come.

    Columbia lift-off
    Columbia's left wing was fatally damaged during lift-off

    It could herald the biggest shake-up in policy since the end of the Apollo Moon missions, when the US space agency first set its sights on building the space shuttle.

    Perhaps the most serious implication for the US space agency is the criticism of its culture and management.

    Similar concerns were raised after the 1986 Challenger disaster and the reverberations look set to run even deeper this time around.

    Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University, Washington DC, expects the report to influence policy for at least the next 30 years.

    "The experience of the shuttle programme has shown how difficult it is to maintain a high performance space programme within the government for extended periods of time," he told BBC News Online.

    "Heavy investment in a direct replacement for the space shuttle could condemn the US to remain in low Earth orbit for the next 30 years."

    Challenger disaster

    Nasa's policy after Apollo was to design and build a reusable spacecraft. Columbia was the first such space shuttle to fly, lifting off in 1981.

    The future of Nasa's space programme will never be the same again
    Peter Bond

    Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis were put into service in the early 1980s but disaster struck in 1986 when Challenger was lost together with its crew of seven astronauts.

    The loss of Challenger shocked the nation and left Nasa's shuttle programme in disarray.

    The subsequent Presidential Commission report blamed a faulty seal within the O-ring of a rocket motor for the accident.

    It criticised internal communications within Nasa and called for stricter safety controls.

    During the Challenger inquiry, it emerged that Nasa managers had failed to respond to last-minute warnings from engineers on risks.

    Columbia debris
    Columbia broke up 15 minutes before landing

    Similar concerns surfaced during the Columbia investigations when it was disclosed that ground engineers had sent e-mails warning about the consequences of damage from foam striking the wing.

    The Columbia Accident Investigation Board has placed the blame for the accident largely on flawed practices at Nasa.

    It is convinced that the management practices overseeing the Space Shuttle Programme were "as much a cause of the accident as the foam that struck the left wing".

    Peter Bond, space science advisor for the Royal Astronomical Society in the UK, says the Columbia report is a milestone in the agency's history.

    "This is a major landmark from which Nasa has to adapt and evolve and change the way it does things," he said.

    "The future of Nasa's space programme will never be the same again."

    Flight constraints

    Nobody is expecting the US to abandon human space flight altogether. But there is bound to be renewed soul searching over its commitment to the International Space Station (ISS) and the shuttles that take astronauts and cargo into low-Earth orbit.



    The shuttle is expected to take off again next summer, but under strict constraints.

    Engineering modifications will have to be carried out so that astronauts will be able to repair any damage caused to the shuttle during the flight.

    Missions will have to lift off during daylight hours, to allow photographs to be taken to assess the risk of damage, and the shuttle will have to be capable of docking with the ISS to allow the crew to be rescued, if need be.

    Construction work on the orbiting outpost is likely to remain on hold for the foreseeable future and Nasa will have to think again about how it will eventually replace the shuttle.

    Nasa had planned to keep the remaining shuttles in operation until 2020 but this strategy has been heavily criticised by the board.

    It says it has no confidence that the space shuttle can be safely operated for more than a few years.

    There is no doubt that the Columbia report makes painful reading for Nasa and its chief administrator Sean O'Keefe.

    It will require a broader discussion of budget, policy and how to replace the shuttle fleet.

    Tough engineering and management challenges lie ahead. But like any large organisation it is perhaps the question of internal culture that will be the hardest for Nasa to address.

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