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NASA Moves Forward to Return Shuttles to Flight
shuttle in orbitSpace Shuttle in orbit with payload bay doors open.

As it awaits the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, NASA is taking the first steps toward returning the Space Shuttle fleet to flight.

Bill Readdy, NASA's Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Flight, has ordered the creation of a Return to Flight team. He has charged the team with examining a number of issues in preparation for getting the Shuttles flying again.

"We want to get the team focused on the Return to Flight effort," Mr. Readdy says. A three-time Shuttle astronaut, Mr. Readdy says he is motivated by a promise he made to the families of the seven astronauts who died February 1, when the Columbia broke up over Texas. He has told the families that NASA will "honor the crew by returning to flight."

The three remaining Shuttles in the NASA fleet -- Endeavour, Atlantis, and Discovery -- have been grounded until the cause of the Columbia accident can be determined and safety changes implemented.

With that in mind, Mr. Readdy has asked the Return to Flight team to examine five issues that have been widely discussed in the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy. He has tasked the team with, among other things, taking a fresh look at the insulating foam on the Shuttle's External Tank, options for repairing thermal protection tiles in orbit, and policies regarding obtaining images of the Shuttle in flight.

"That is the elephant in the room," Mr. Readdy says. "Are we going to ignore those [issues]? Hardly. We can't ignore those. We don't want to ignore those. We want to find out what happened. We want to know whether there are ways we could improve our process."

The findings of the CAIB will direct subsequent steps to Return to Flight. The board is expected to make wide-ranging recommendations to NASA based on what it determines to be the primary and contributing causes of the Columbia accident.

The Return to Flight team has been told to complete their initial tasks in time to support the earliest possible launch date, which would be this fall. But NASA officials say it could take months longer to prepare the Shuttles to fly again.

"We are trying to anticipate and get ahead of the things that we see," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe says, "to think in terms, very constructively, of the kinds of pre-launch, on-orbit, and after-landing kinds of changes; to get ourselves ready to prepare to move ahead."

Shortly after the Columbia tragedy, President Bush pledged that space exploration would continue.
"Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand," he said. "Our journey into space will go on."

06.11.03 - Return to Flight Task Force will be chaired by former astronauts Tom Stafford and Dick Covey. The initial members will help assess NASA's implementation of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's findings once the final report is released. Additional members will be added throughout the process.

+ View the list of names

05.5.03 - The Space Shuttle Program 2020 Assessment was a NASA effort commissioned in March 2002 to identify future investments required to safely and effectively fly Shuttle through the year 2020. The PDF file includes a summary and set of charts.

+ View Acrobat PDF (5 Mb)

03.14.03 - Press met with NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and Associate Administrator for Space Flight Bill Readdy to discuss activities undertaken by NASA to ensure safe flight of the Space Shuttle fleet upon conclusion of the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

+ View 03.14.03 transcript in Acrobat PDF (306 Kb)
+ View letter in Acrobat PDF (306 Kb)
+ View chart in Acrobat PDF (306 Kb)