CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA (search) needs to supply astronauts with a "reasonable, doable and practicable" way to plug space shuttle holes in orbit before resuming launches, an advisory group said Thursday.
The task force's position could lead to a showdown next spring between the group and NASA.
NASA has been unable to come up with a good repair method despite nearly two years of engineering effort. And while the space agency has not given up, it contends it does not have to develop a reliable technique before shuttle flights (search) can resume as planned in May or June.
But James Adamson, one of six former astronauts serving on the 26-member advisory panel set up by NASA's outgoing chief, said Thursday that a workable repair technique is, indeed, one of the requirements outlined by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (search) for resuming flights.
While the method does not need to be fully tested and certified before shuttle flights resume, "it has to be reasonable, doable and practicable, and I think NASA's going to have that," Adamson said.
A chunk of foam insulation from Columbia's fuel tank came off during liftoff and ripped a hole in the left wing that doomed the shuttle and its seven astronauts during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.
Just last week, shuttle officials said they were doing their best to come up with patches for the spaceship's thermal skin but had run into snags and would go with whatever repair methods they have next spring, even if they are less than ideal. The main focus, they said, has been on redesigning the fuel tank to eliminate the shedding of any dangerous pieces of foam.
As for whether the shuttle would be safe to fly without a decent technique for repairing holes, "it's really not our call to say," Adamson said.
Another advisory group member, aerospace executive Joseph Cuzzupoli, said he believes NASA will have some limited capability for repairing shuttle holes by the time Discovery is ready to take off on what essentially will be a test flight for the redesigned fuel tank and shuttle inspection and repair methods.
He said he doubts NASA will be able to patch a hole the size of the 6- to 10-inch one that brought down Columbia, but expects some sort of fix for smaller gashes.
At its meeting Thursday, the advisory group formally declared that NASA has met eight of the Columbia accident board's recommendations for resuming shuttle flights.
Those include installing cameras on the shuttle and the ground to watch for damage to the spacecraft; working with the Pentagon to get spy satellite images of the shuttle in orbit; reinforcing vulnerable spots on the orbiter; and consulting independent engineers in solving problems.
That leaves seven recommendations that must be met before Discovery can blast off.