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NASA Planning Return to Space, Possibly as Early as Next March

By John Schwartz

with Warren E. Leary

The New York Times -- HOUSTON

NASA is embarking on the “daunting” process of returning the remaining space shuttles to the skies through a process that will make the program “stronger and smarter and safer,” its top official for space flight said Monday.

Briefing reporters at the Johnson Space Center here on a newly released blueprint for returning to flight, the official, associate administrator William F. Readdy, said the agency would not rush the shuttle fleet back into space.

While the plan calls for a return to flight as early as next March, he added: “We will converge on a viable return to flight launch date, whether that turns out to be March, or April, or May, or June, or July -- so be it. We will be safety-driven, not schedule-driven.”

The NASA document calls for development of entirely new methods for preventing the kind of damage that brought down the shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, and for detecting and repairing damage that slips through the new procedures. “We’re going to do this one bite of the elephant at a time,” Readdy said.

The plan proposes launching the shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station sometime from March 11 to April 6. While the original purpose of this flight was to carry supplies and a new crew to the station, its primary mission now would be as a developmental flight to test new procedures and safety equipment recommended by the board that investigated the Columbia disaster.

Readdy called the plan an “evolving document” that will change as NASA learns more about the process and incorporates additional material that is expected to emerge from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and congressional inquiries into the disaster.

The board released the main volume of its final report two weeks ago, and has said it will release supplementary materials in coming weeks. The board found that damage from falling insulation foam at liftoff damaged the heat protection system, dooming the shuttle and its crew of seven upon reentry into the atmosphere.