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The Orlando Sentinel June 28, 2003

Board to NASA: Find way to fix shuttle in space

By Gwyneth K. Shaw

WASHINGTON -- The board investigating the shuttle Columbia accident recommended Friday that NASA find a way to allow astronauts to check for damage to the orbiter -- and fix it -- while in space.

The suggestion is not unexpected -- the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been working on a solution since March. But it is a tough problem, and the board said it must be addressed before another shuttle is launched.

Plans for an on-orbit repair system for the tiles that cover the shuttle's belly were jettisoned not long after Columbia's first mission, in 1981. Until recently, there has never been serious consideration about how to patch one or more of the 22 reinforced carbon-carbon, or RCC, panels that cover the leading edges of each of the orbiter's wings.

Knowing that the recommendation was coming, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and retired Adm. Harold Gehman, the leader of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, expressed optimism this week that the agency could return to flight by sometime next spring.

O'Keefe said Thursday that he hopes to see a flight by next April, and Gehman said Tuesday that he saw no reason why NASA can't fly within six to nine months.

However, as with all of the changes prompted by the Feb. 1 breakup of Columbia, the unknown factor is just how much time it will take to design a workable plan.

Investigators think a 1.67-pound chunk of foam from the shuttle's external tank that struck Columbia during launch did enough damage to the leading edge of the left wing to allow superhot gases to penetrate the shuttle and destroy it. Before the accident, the foam was not considered a danger to the orbiter, and the RCC panels were thought to be tough enough to withstand such a debris strike.

Engineers test options

Melissa Motichek, a NASA spokeswoman, said Friday that engineers are reviewing and testing a number of options and hope to deliver a progress report to shuttle-program managers in early July.

The recommendation to be able to inspect the shuttle for damage -- relatively early on in each mission -- is the easier part of the equation, Motichek said. Some of the options under consideration are using the robotic arms attached to the shuttle and the international space station to hold cameras that could check for problems and having astronauts do a spacewalk to eyeball the shuttle's underbelly.

"The more difficult issue, obviously, is repair," she said.

Heat-proof patch is option

Engineers are looking at developing a kind of seal or other material that could be used to cover damage and still survive the intense heat of re-entry. It's not clear whether it would be possible to use one material for both the tiles and the carbon panels.

Even if a material is approved, Motichek said, engineers will still have to figure out how to bond it to the shuttle and how its addition would affect the aerodynamics of the wing.

Still, NASA officials are optimistic that a fix can be found, and quickly, Motichek said.

"It's a priority for us," she said.

Friday's recommendation was the third from the board, which is expected to deliver its final report late next month. The first two recommendations, issued in April, were to seek satellite or other imagery of the shuttle in orbit on every mission and to develop more sophisticated methods to check the RCC panels for age- or stress-related damage.

The latest suggestion lays out different scenarios, depending on whether a mission is bound for the space station but does not suggest how to accomplish them.

For shuttle flights headed for the orbiting outpost, the recommendation says, NASA needs to utilize the station's cameras, robotic arm and the haven the station would provide to astronauts on board a damaged orbiter.

On nonstation missions -- only two of which are scheduled in the foreseeable future -- the board's recommendation says an autonomous inspection and repair system would be needed, presumably involving spacewalks.

Shuttles to get handles

Charles Vick, an aerospace consultant and senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a space- and defense-policy think tank, said on-orbit inspections should not be difficult to pull off, especially if NASA follows through with plans to put hand- and footholds on the shuttle.

Fixing any damage, however, is going to be significantly harder, he said.

"It is not going to be easy. Being able to do it will be dependent on your access to the orbiter and those areas that would have to be repaired -- all the way from the leading edges right on down to the individual tiles," Vick said.

"The possibility of being able to do that is in some areas, I think, questionable, especially with the leading edge material, which would have to be so carefully inspected."

Repairing the tiles would be easier than fixing the RCC panels, he said. But a better solution is reducing the risk of foam and other objects hitting the shuttle in the first place, he said -- a position also held by the board.

"The best thing is just to eliminate the possibility of debris hitting things, which should have been done early on," Vick said.

Gwyneth K. Shaw can be reached at gshaw@orlandosentinel.com or 202-824-8229.


Copyright 2003, Orlando Sentinel