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Science & Space

Difficulties as NASA prepares shuttle's return

By Michael Coren
CNN

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A space shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
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(CNN) -- NASA faces formidable technical difficulties as it attempts to fly the space shuttles again by early 2005, according to an updated "Return to Flight" report released Tuesday.

NASA announced it will need more money to complete its safety and refurbishing programs.

More than $300 million in additional funding was diverted to improving the shuttle program in 2003 and 2004. It is likely that the 2005 budget will exceed the original funding request by hundreds of millions of dollars, NASA said.

The space agency has had to tighten its belt in recent years due to congressional budget cuts, but officials warned that cost estimates could still change dramatically.

To return the shuttle fleet to flight, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board has made 15 recommendations ranging from improving photography of the shuttles to repair techniques if astronauts are trapped in orbit.

Two-thirds of the recommendations made by the independent panel have not been met, but an official said the agency is confident it will succeed. Five have been "conditionally" fulfilled.

"We feel like we have the bulk of these things in hand," said Michael Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator for international space station and space shuttle programs."Now less than a year away from return to flight we are focused on the difficult things. We are on track as we speak for an early 2005 launch."

An attempt to develop a rigid patch for the shuttle's wings to fix large holes met "significant technical challenges," the report said.

Instead, NASA embarked on a research program to find more flexible solutions for holes larger than 4 inches in diameter.

"The biggest problem with any of the repair techniques with anything that causes the wing to not have a smooth surface is it creates problems with heat," said Bill Parsons, space shuttle program manager .He said the main focus is to stop debris from causing damage to the shuttle in the first place.

The shuttle Columbia was destroyed February 1, 2003, after a briefcase-sized chunk of foam from the main fuel tank punched a hole in the left wing .During re-entry, it allowed superheated gases to enter the shuttle and destroy the vehicle, killing all seven astronauts on board.

Return-to-flight efforts have focused on preventing and repairing such damage, and on launching rescue missions should the astronauts be stranded in orbit.

NASA said it has made significant headway in some areas.

One that has long been of concern to space officials is the debris environment around Earth.

An orbiting junkyard of speeding particles and discarded hardware threatens spacecraft operating within 2,000 miles of Earth. At orbital speed, objects as small as paint chips pose a hazard to spacecraft .To deal with that threat, foreign object monitoring has been improved.

The shuttles' sophisticated but delicate thermal protection system also received an engineering makeover -- what NASA called a hardening of the orbiter -- to deal with re-entry temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the melting point of steel.

The reinforced carbon-carbon skin, part of the exotic material "sandwiches" that buffer the shuttles' temperature swings, has been improved.

NASA said it hopes eventually to go beyond the recommendations to reinforce more areas, such as the landing gear, where damage was reported after earlier flights.

And the agency's rescue capabilities have received a green light from NASA administrators.

Officials in the space shuttle and international space station programs reviewed contingency plans for the shuttles' and found that for the first two flights, and potentially more, rescue missions would be possible.

Efforts to expand that capacity would continue, NASA said.

CNN's Dave Santucci contributed to this report.


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