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NASA Chief Considering When to Launch Shuttle

Safety Changes May Not Be Ready, Griffin Says

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page A05

New NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said yesterday that he will consider launching the space shuttle even if the orbiter is not in full compliance with safety recommendations made in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster.

The shuttle Discovery is scheduled to be launched between May 15 and June 3 for a flight to the international space station, but efforts to comply with 15 recommendations made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board appear likely to fall short -- particularly in astronauts' ability to effect on-board repairs of the shuttle's heat shielding.

Michael D. Griffin, NASA's new administrator, addresses a news conference. (Charles Dharapak -- AP)

If NASA engineers recommend launching despite these shortcomings, "that is something I would consider," Griffin told a NASA headquarters news conference, his first meeting with reporters since his Senate confirmation last week.

Still, he added, "I cannot begin at this time to say under what specific conditions NASA might elect to go ahead with the launch" if there were disagreement between shuttle engineers and a special task force charged with overseeing compliance with the accident board's recommendations. Griffin, a physicist and engineer with a varied background in aerospace, is a well-known advocate of human space travel and a fervent supporter of President Bush's initiative to reorient NASA's endeavors away from orbiting Earth and toward exploration of the moon and, eventually, Mars.

"If we were going to be doing the same thing for the next three decades that we have been doing for the last three decades, frankly I don't believe I would have wanted the job" as administrator, he said.

He gave no indication that he planned to close any NASA centers but acknowledged that "we are all living through some short-term dislocations," particularly in the agency's aeronautics programs. "We can't get from the program we were executing to the program we want to execute without having some dislocation. It simply cannot be done."

He repeated his intention to speed development of a new spaceship to replace the shuttle, saying members of Congress and White House officials had agreed that the current plan -- to fly crewed missions in the new spacecraft in 2014 -- is not ambitious enough. "It doesn't work for me either," he said.

He also repeated his intention to reconsider flying the shuttle to service the Hubble Space Telescope sometime after the shuttle's first flight. Then-NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, Griffin's predecessor, canceled the servicing mission last year on grounds that the shuttle could not service Hubble and still be in compliance with the accident board's safety recommendations.

Griffin's emerging view that the shuttle's future should not necessarily be dictated by the board's recommendations would open the door to a Hubble mission and enhance the chances that the shuttle, grounded since the Columbia accident more than two years ago, would launch on schedule.

"The whole idea of tile [heat shielding] repair is a very good idea, but the implementation of it could well be beyond that which we know how to do," Griffin said, suggesting that NASA may have no alternative but to fly the shuttle with unproven repair techniques. "The clearance for return to flight cannot be simply a 'go' or 'no-go' decision based on 'Can you repair a tile in orbit?' "

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