Shuttle investigation overshadows new NASA strategic plan

Investigators probing the space shuttle Columbia disaster upstaged the release of NASA's new strategic plan Thursday. The Feb. 1 shuttle catastrophe itself upstaged the original release of the plan with the agency's 2004 budget request nearly three months ago.

Less than an hour before NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe took the stage at the National Press Club in Washington to unveil his "building block" approach to solar system exploration, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) in Houston issued its first recommendations on the accident that killed seven astronauts.

The CAIB's full report on the accident is due sometime in the next four months. On Thursday, it said NASA should improve inspection and testing of reinforced carbon heat-shielding components that protect shuttles from the ferocious heat of atmospheric re-entry. It also urged the agency to rewrite its agreement with the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) to require on-orbit imaging of every shuttle flight.

Columbia broke apart as it returned to Earth when super-heated air called plasma entered the orbiter and destroyed its structural components. One theory blames a tiny breach in carbon composite material on the leading edge of the left wing. Another theory blames a missing piece of heat shield that may have been detected if NASA had obtained pictures of the orbiter from long-range telescopes and spy satellites.

O'Keefe said NASA began fulfilling the recommendations before they were issued. With the NIMA agreement in hand, he said, the space agency's new Return-to-Flight Team is working to devise a nondestructive method for testing the heat shield. Leading the effort is Michael Greenfield, NASA's associate deputy administrator for technical programs and one of the team's co-chairmen. NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Flight William Readdy, a former astronaut, is the other team leader. Five-flight veteran James Halsell is overseeing the day-to-day work required for getting shuttles back into space.

"We are now set upon a prudent and preliminary course to begin planning for when the shuttle will return to flight safely," O'Keefe said Thursday. The CAIB "fully understands our approach for the logic of getting on with it," the administrator added.

O'Keefe said NASA is fulfilling the wishes of the families of the astronauts who perished and of the American people, who want "us to continue progressing with space flight activities, to do so with the utmost regard for safety, and incorporating lessons learned from the Columbia accident." The 2003 strategic plan marks the first time in years that NASA has released its exploration blueprint in conjunction with its budget request. O'Keefe said the 54-page document builds a solid foundation for solar system exploration by robots and humans. "It is designed to enable us to reach any number of destinations in the solar system, do important science, and tangibly advance technological and economic progress in the process," he told the press club gathering.

The strategic plan acknowledges that NASA needs new technologies to overcome its current limitations and achieve its ultimate mission of understanding and protecting Earth, exploring the universe and searching for life, and inspiring future explorers. The technological barriers it enumerates are ample power for propulsion and science; safe, reliable and economical space transportation; countermeasures for human physiological and psychological limitations; and efficient data transfer across the solar system.

The plan proposes three key efforts to address the shortcomings. Topping the list is Project Prometheus, a mission to Jupiter's moons that will demonstrate revolutionary nuclear power and propulsion technologies. A human research initiative will accelerate research toward effective countermeasures for radiation exposure and other threatening health effects of space travel, with the goal of enabling missions beyond Earth's orbit and lasting 100 days or more. A demonstration of laser data relay from Mars is intended to improve optical communications technology and transform the field of planetary science.

O'Keefe described the document as "easily readable, written in a language that most of us understand-English-and…not the size of the normal strategic plan doorstops." He said it builds on a foundation of current capabilities and future technology breakthroughs to help NASA pave a "true highway to space."

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