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Space Shuttle Columbia

Next shuttle skipper determined to fly

From Miles O'Brien

NASA astronaut Eileen Collins
NASA astronaut Eileen Collins

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CNN's Miles O'Brien reports on the state of NASA's space shuttle program in the wake of the Columbia disaster (November 27)
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Eileen Collins
Space Shuttle
Space Programs
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- Space shuttle commander Eileen Collins is not sure when she will fly, or what it will take to get her crew trained; but she says they will be ready to lead the first flight after Columbia, perhaps as soon as September 2004 but more likely early 2005.

"This is a very hard. The engineering and the organization changes that we're making are very difficult. But I have confidence that we're going to get there," she said.

In some areas, NASA is making major progress. On board the airplane that simulates weightlessness in brief spurts, known affectionately known as the "Vomit Comet," the space agency is refining a technique for repairing damaged insulating tiles in space, using everything from a custom-made goo gun to a 25-cent foam paint brush.

If astronauts in orbit had to attempt such a repair, to fix a damaged wing like the one that led to the destruction of Columbia, would they succeed?

"I think it could be done, yeah. And I still need a couple of practices to make it safer and easier to operate. But, right now I think its very good solution," Collins told CNN.

NASA engineers also think they have a good solution to reduce the risk of insulating foam falling off a shuttle's external fuel tank during launch, which caused the fatal puncture in Columbia's wing.

The proposed fix: remove the foam from the high-risk areas: struts that attach the oribiter and tank, and use heaters to keep them from icing up. But changes like that bring a raft of new concerns for the new shuttle program manager, Bill Parsons.

"As we do other things to this vehicle, we have to understand how that impacts the entire vehicle, what we might have created, another hazard," Parsons said.

And there is still at least one engineering riddle without an answer. Foam striking a carbon panel on Columbia's left wing during its final launch caused a fatal breach in its heat shield. The orbiter disintegrated two weeks later during the heat of re-entry on February 1, killing the crew of seven.

NASA is testing some on orbit repair ideas: a flexible cover, a balloon to fill the void behind a panel, an adhesive patch and an umbrella-like hole plug. The ideas are new and the engineering jury is still out.

"We have good days, we have bad days. And so when things don't go as planned and we have to step back and reassess it, well then that does take away from us, but these folks are real resilient," Parsons said.

As it turns out, fixing the falling foam, or the broken thermal tiles or carbon panels may be the easier tasks now facing NASA. Because along with the engineering recommendations, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board also suggests that NASA cannot fly safely unless it reengineers its culture.

The Board, which conducted months of study on the disaster, said shuttle managers were not listening to their own people, that they ignored many warnings from mid-level engineers. NASA insists its hears the concerns loud and clear. The same goes for the astronauts.

"Let me tell you what I'm doing as a commander of the next mission. I'm telling my crew, 'We all need to listen. When people talk to us, we need to listen.'"

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