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Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC
Permission granted by the Houston Chronicle

Aug. 8, 2003, 12:29AM

Task force ponders next liftoff
'Experimental' label for shuttle fleet gains leader's support
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The former astronaut co-chairing the
return-to-flight shuttle task force agrees with Columbia accident
investigators that the shuttle fleet should be re-characterized as

Richard Covey, who served as pilot aboard the shuttle mission that
marked NASA's recovery from the fatal 1986 Challenger explosion, said
the transition from experimental to operational for new military
aircraft and commercial airliners typically follows hundreds of test

"We have never seen that with the space shuttle program, and it won't be
there within its lifetime," said Covey. "So, if indeed, a proper focus
is a result of thinking in terms of it being experimental, I can support
that. I like that." 

Chief investigator Harold Gehman and others on the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board have blamed the Feb. 1 shuttle loss in part on NASA
management lapses that failed to size up the hazards from a long history
of breakaway foam insulation with the rigor of a military flight test

Columbia broke up near the end of the 113th shuttle flight. 

Late this month, the accident investigation board will present its
formal findings. The panel believes Columbia's demise was triggered by
the launch day impact of a chunk of fuel tank foam against the underside
of the left wing. The blow left an undetected hole that allowed
superheated gases to invade the shuttle's wing as Columbia made its
high-speed descent back to Earth. 

Once the board delivers its report, the 27-member task force led by
Covey and Tom Stafford, the former Apollo astronaut, will oversee NASA's
response to the corrective actions outlined by the investigation board
before the agency resumes shuttle launches. 

The task force, recently appointed by NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe,
assembled for the first time this week at NASA's Kennedy Space Center
for closed-door briefings from Gehman and other members of the
investigative panel as well as high-ranking shuttle program personnel. 

During its first public proceeding Thursday, the Houston-based task
force outlined how it intends to carry out its role in determining when
the next shuttle lifts off. 

The task force has separated into three panels that will evaluate NASA
responses to the operational, technical and cultural or managerial
issues raised in the investigative board's report. 

The task force's work is to conclude with a compliance report to O'Keefe
one month before the first post-Columbia mission. 

The space agency is posturing for a liftoff between March 18 and April
6, a goal NASA itself considers tentative. 

"I probably don't know enough yet to make an assessment of whether that
is a good target," said Covey. 

Though it will have the ear of the public, Congress and NASA through its
proceedings and final report, the powers of the task force are limited. 

"We don't make calls of `go/no go,' " said Covey. "We don't call a halt.
We're an advisory board. So we can advise the (NASA) administrator we're
unhappy with the direction return-to-flight activities are taking. Then
it's his job to call a halt." 

When he announced the formation of the task force in May, however,
O'Keefe pledged to follow its guidance. 

"When they say we can fly, that is when we will fly," O'Keefe said. 

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