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NASA struggles with shuttle repair kit

NASA is still struggling to develop a tool for inspecting the outside of the space shuttle and a repair kit for gashed wings — hurdles that could prolong the grounding of the fleet since the Columbia disaster. Shuttle program manager Bill Parsons said recently that the space agency remains on track for a launch as early as next September or October.

“We have all the confidence in the world we can get there,” Parsons said. But he cautioned: “There are a number of areas out there that could create bumps in the road for us and we’re going to have to keep a close eye on things.”

Atlantis is in line to fly next, on a trip to the international space station that would be used to test various shuttle-repair methods. Since the February disaster, NASA has made considerable progress in devising a technique to fix holes in the silica glass fiber tiles that cover much of each shuttle. Spacewalking astronauts would use a caulking gun to inject a salmon-colored, puttylike material into a gap.

It is proving much more difficult, however, to develop a repair kit for the reinforced carbon panels that protect the leading edges of the shuttle wings from the searing heat of re-entry. A hole in the edge of Columbia’s left wing led to its destruction over Texas; a piece of fuel-tank foam insulation gashed it there during liftoff. Engineers also are having trouble putting together an extension boom with cameras and laser sensors that could be used by astronauts to inspect the outside of their orbiting ships for damage.

Although Columbia accident investigators said the seven astronauts might have survived if their cabin had been stronger and better protected, NASA is not considering a redesign, at least for now, Parsons said. Shuttle mission managers, meanwhile, are holding drills to improve their communication and decision-making. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board blamed the space agency’s broken safety culture, in large part, for the tragedy. This week, NASA is giving employees time at work to read and discuss the board’s report, which was released in August. Copies were distributed widely throughout the space agency.