NASA has set May 15 as the launch date for the first shuttle mission since the Columbia accident two years ago.I'm in two minds about this, the devil's in the details, details I know little about.
"The challenge right now is closure of an awful lot of paper. The vehicle can't launch until all the paperwork is done," Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, said.
"I know that sounds a little bit trivial," he said.
"But documentation of each and every thing we do is very important."
The board that investigated the fatal 2003 Columbia accident recommended NASA make 15 changes before resuming shuttle flights.
A special panel overseeing NASA's implementation of the accident board's findings says NASA has fulfilled seven recommendations fully and one conditionally.
The outstanding items will be considered at the board's planned final meeting at the end of March.
"We have every expectation that we are going to close all of them," Mr Readdy said.
"At this point, we don't see any show stoppers."
Walter Cantrell, who co-chairs NASA's Space Flight Leadership Council with Mr Readdy, says it has set all its standards a level or two higher than the oversight board.
"Obviously we're going to comply with what [they] are looking for. We're the ones that accept the risk, and we've set the standard where we think it should be," he said.
May 15 was chosen as the launch date for Discovery and its seven member crew because of lighting conditions and thermal issues related to the shuttle's launch and docking at the International Space Station.
NASA managers also set July 12 as the date for the second shuttle mission this year.
However, in case of an emergency aboard the Discovery, Mr Readdy says a second ship could be ready to be launched on a rescue mission as early as June 14.
As part of the safety upgrades implemented after the Columbia disaster, NASA wants to be able to shelter astronauts aboard the space station if their ship is too damaged to return to Earth.
Extra supplies will be flown to the space station on February 28.
It's certainly good that NASA is thinking a bit more about "what do we do if things go wrong?" this time. But the basic problem is that the Space Shuttle is just too darned expensive and inefficient as a reliable space transportation system. It needs mending with a new one, even assuming that all the fatal kinks have been ironed out - which is a reasonable assumption, but not a proven fact.
Meanwhile, the only crewed space vehicle in development by the US is the CEV - the Crewed Exploration Vehicle. From Space.com :
Contractors are now busy at work on blueprinting CEV designs. NASA is expected to pick two prime teams later this year for preliminary CEV design and risk reduction flight test programs.So providing nothing whatsoever goes wrong, there's a 9-year gap that the Shuttle must fill. And at the end of the gap, the replacement's crewed section will most likely look more like a Soyuz or Apollo capsule, than a spaceplane - see below.
In 2008, the selected contractors will carry out unpiloted "boilerplate" CEV trial runs.
This risk reduction effort will lead NASA CEV project officials to select one contractor in 2008 to build the CEV for Spiral 1. More capable flight tests of the CEV are planned for 2011, also without crew. The first human flight of the CEV is slated for 2014.
More graphics of various concepts by Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and NASA are at Project Constellation's CEV Concept Gallery. It looks like we're going back to the ballistic-capsule method for returning crew to Earth. On the other hand, the capsule is only part of the system as a whole. The CEV is most emphatically not primarily for getting into LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and returning, unlike the Shuttle. It's an Exploration vehicle, with many mission-specific modules, designed to go to the Moon and beyond.
Sometimes Back to the Past is Back to the Future.