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Space Shuttle Columbia

Accident board makes first recommendations to NASA

Investigators: Shuttle wing inspection, pictures in orbit needed

Columbia wreckage is arranged on a floor grid at Kennedy Space Center.
Columbia wreckage is arranged on a floor grid at Kennedy Space Center.

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•  Audio Slide Show: Shuttle lost
•  Timeline: Investigation
•  Gallery: New safety guidelines
•  Gallery: Columbia crew
•  Report: Findings, counsel

HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- The panel investigating the space shuttle Columbia's accident recommended Thursday that NASA inspect the leading edges of the wings and other key parts of shuttles with CAT scan-like technology before every flight.

The board also suggested that before launching another space shuttle, NASA implement plans to take pictures of shuttles while in orbit. The recommendations were the first of several expected to come from the panel.

NASA should "develop and implement a comprehensive inspection plan to determine the structural integrity of all Reinforced Carbon-Carbon (RCC) system components," the investigative board said.

RCC is the material on the leading edge of the shuttle's wings and other key parts that are subject to the most intense heat during re-entry. According to the report, RCC has a criticality rating of 1, meaning problems with it could cause loss of crew and vehicle.

The investigative board's leading shuttle break-up theory is that a piece of insulating foam fell off the shuttle's external tank and struck the leading edge of Columbia's left wing, causing a gap in the RCC. That allowed super-heated gasses to enter the left wing during re-entry and caused the shuttle to fall apart, investigators theorize.

Their recommendation suggested using non-invasive forms of wing inspection -- similar to CAT scans done on humans -- before launch that would allow inspectors to see internal damage without having to remove the material. The panel said that NASA's current method of visually inspecting the RCC and tapping to listen for air pockets is inadequate.

In its second recommendation, the investigative board said photographs should be taken from high-powered telescopes and analyzed during space flight as a routine part of every space shuttle mission, whether problems are suspected or not. NASA recently made an agreement with the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) to take such images in the future.

Thursday's recommendations came 2 1/2 months after the panel was formed to determine the cause of Columbia's demise.

The board said earlier this week that more recommendations are to come and that a final report is expected this summer.

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