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NASA says preliminary shuttle flight plan nearly complete

Without a quibble, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe Wednesday accepted all recommendations of the hard-nosed Columbia Space Shuttle Investigation Board and said a preliminary plan toward a return to flight is nearly finished.

At a hearing into the Feb. 1 disaster that killed seven astronauts, O'Keefe told the Senate Commerce Committee, "We are in the process of completing a preliminary return to flight implementation plan, which will detail the agency's evolving blueprint for returning to flight safely and reliably." The plan will be released later this week, or possibly next week. But O'Keefe had no timetable for future manned flights, saying, "It will occur when we determine when we are fit to fly."

He told the panel headed by Commerce Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., that all recommendations of the board headed by retired Adm. Harold Gehman will be accepted. "There is no equivocation," O'Keefe said. And, he added, NASA will take additional steps for safety. Already, there has been a shakeup in NASA, he said, with "a completely new team" of shuttle management.

Gehman's board found a dislodged chunk of insulation foam that breached part of a wing caused the mishap, but it blamed equally a disjointed management and ingrained culture for the disaster.

Not all senators were impressed by O'Keefe's presentation. Commerce ranking member Ernest (Fritz) Hollings, D-S.C., said he heard similar testimony after the Challenger shuttle exploded in 1986. "I'm listening and finding out the same things I heard 17 years ago," said Hollings. Gehman, asked who specifically was accountable" for the tragedy, said that accountability could be traced back to a few years after the Challenger accident. Recommendations were implemented after the Challenger, but then management lapses started setting in, he said.

While McCain and Hollings pressed for people who could be held accountable, O'Keefe stepped in to take full responsibility. "I am personally accountable," he said, although he later added no one had told him about the dislodged foam during Columbia's flight. Earlier shuttles also experienced disintegration of the Styrofoam-type material, but Gehman noted NASA did not fully investigate the situations for budget and other reasons.

O'Keefe embraced a recommendation by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., for a cost-benefit study submitted to Congress within six months. "It's a very intriguing idea," O'Keefe said. "I'll give it my best shot."