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Introducing the Return to Flight Journal
The Return to Flight Journal, a new series of monthly articles, will provide a behind the scenes look at ongoing Return to Flight activities. In the year since the August 2003 release of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report, NASA has made steady progress to address key issues and prepare the Space Shuttle fleet for space flight.

Comparison of new bipod attach fitting design and previous design, insetNASA's approval of a redesigned bipod attach fitting is a significant Return to Flight milestone. Part of the enormous external fuel tank, the fittings connect the tank to the Shuttle orbiter during launch and ascent. The newly revamped hardware relies on a series of heaters, rather than foam insulation, to prevent ice build-up on the fittings. Falling foam from the bipod area is believed to have been a key factor in the Columbia accident, and this redesign meets the CAIB's recommendation that NASA reduce the risk of falling debris.

Image to right: The redesigned bipod attach fitting uses heaters to prevent ice from building up. The previous design (inset) relied on a foam ramp. Credit: NASA

The new fitting design will be built into all future tanks and retrofitted on the 11 existing tanks, including the one intended for Return to Flight mission STS-114. That tank is due to arrive at KSC later this year.

When Space Shuttle Discovery separates from its emptied external tank after reaching orbit, Mission Control will be able to review the footage in a whole new way -- from a digital camera built into the orbiter's underside. NASA is pursuing use of the camera, beginning with the Shuttle's Return to Flight, to obtain and downlink high-resolution. The images will be quickly transmitted to Mission Control, where analysis can begin almost immediately. Previously, separation photos were captured on a film camera, and managers had to wait until the orbiter was back on the ground to obtain the negatives. The new camera is undergoing final preparations following a fit check on the orbiter body.

Wiring is installed for the Orbiter Boom Sensor SystemInside Discovery's payload bay, wiring is in place that will support the external tank separation camera, wing leading edge impact sensors and the Orbiter Boom Sensor System (OBSS). Designed to satisfy the CAIB's recommendation that Space Shuttle crews have a way to visually inspect the orbiter after launch, the OBSS was successfully tested at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. The boom is back at the manufacturer, MD Robotics, the Canadian company that also makes the Shuttle's Canadarm Remote Manipulator System (RMS) and the Canadarm II on the International Space Station. The OBSS is expected to be installed in late October.

Image above: In Kennedy Space Center's Orbiter Processing Facility, workers install wiring in Discovery's cargo bay that will support the addition of an Orbiter Boom Sensor System (OBSS). The OBSS is one of the new safety measures for Return to Flight, equipping the Shuttle with cameras and laser systems to inspect the Shuttle's Thermal Protection System while in space. Credit: NASA

The Space Shuttles' Reinforced Carbon-Carbon panels and nose caps were tested using innovative, non-destructive methods including ultrasound, CAT scans and flash thermography. These methods allowed technicians to get in-depth views of each panel without causing any damage. The RCC nose cap and several RCC panels are already installed on Space Shuttle Discovery in preparation for flight.

Another Return to Flight upgrade is the installation of ground-based tracking, imaging and analysis equipment that will record all future launches with unprecedented speed and detail. With a doubling of the number of available tracking cameras and the purchase of high-definition television and state-of-the-art image analysis equipment, NASA will be able to closely watch the Space Shuttle's liftoff like never before.

An RCC panel undergoes flash thermographyImage to right: A non-destructive evaluation specialist with United Space Alliance at KSC examines a Reinforced Carbon Carbon panel using flash thermography. The procedure uses high intensity light to heat areas of the panels, and an infrared camera detects flaws revealed as the panels cool. Credit: NASA

In addition to upgraded flight hardware and imaging equipment, more employees are dedicated to safety and mission assurance across the Agency. At KSC, the goal is to increase the number of safety personnel from 11% of the workforce to 15%, and that goal is now within reach.

There are still more milestones to look forward to in the coming months as we close in on launch day. Be sure to watch for the next Return to Flight journal entry, featuring updates on the arrival of the external tank, installation of the Shuttle's robotic arm and more.

For information about NASA's Return to Flight efforts on the Internet, visit:
Anna Heiney
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center