NASA to have final say on launch

by Chris Bergin

NASA could choose to go ahead with the May launch of Discovery – even if the Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group hasn’t been fully satisfied that all the elements of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) recommendations have been implemented.

NASA’s new chief Michael Griffin said last Monday that if his managers, engineers, and Orbiter herself are all convinced it is safe to fly, he might proceed with launch plans without full permission from the safety panel that was created after the loss of Columbia in 2003.
When asked if he would allow Discovery to fly – despite any safety reservations to the contrary – Griffin replied “In concept, yes I would.”
The NASA chief’s views contradict with those of STS-114 commander Eileen Collins, who said earlier this month that she didn’t see how NASA could launch without the independent group’s blessing.
“I cannot begin at this time to say under what specific conditions NASA might elect to go ahead with the launch,” said Griffin, “given a disparity of opinion between various interested parties as to whether we should or should not.” 
In light of this, Griffin remarked that it is unlikely NASA and the safety advisors will be at odds. Although, Wayne Hale and Bill Parsons noted earlier this month that they could envisage a launch without the outside group’s blessing.
The tight launch mandate may also come into play, especially given the second Return to Flight mission for Atlantis scheduled for July.  A possible compromise could be delaying both launches.
Nevertheless, NASA is still aiming to launch between May 15 and June 3, regardless of the anticipated review by the Return to Flight Task Group – due at the end of the month following several previous delays.
However, Griffin points out, “Advisory groups advise,” and “The NASA line managers have responsibility for executing the programme.
“But at the end of the day, the people wearing government and contractor badges charged with launching the vehicle will be the ones who are responsible and accountable for their actions.”
The Return To Flight Task Force was created after an outside accident board criticised NASA for management and technical problems which it said, triggered Columbia’s accident. Following this, the board – headed by two former astronauts, Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey – said 15 recommendations were needed to be satisfied before the Shuttles could fly again.  An additional 16th was added later.
As of April 14th this year, only eight of the 16 recommendations were finished, according to the Task Force.  Subsequently the board were forced to pull out of a public hearing on outstanding issues in March because they said they were lacking important data and information from NASA.  Furthermore, the Task Force heavily reprimanded NASA managers for failing to hand over paperwork for them to study.
By way of a compromise, NASA boss Griffin concluded: “I will make certain that everyone has given me the most convincing technical arguments on why it’s OK to launch — if it is OK to launch — before we commit to going ahead.”

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