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NASA gives thumbs up to new Shuttle missions

Hubble still out in the cold

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NASA says that its plans to return to flight are on track for a May launch, confirming that all of the criteria for a new mission have now been met.

The US space agency grounded its Shuttle fleet after the loss of Columbia in February 2003. The shuttle burned-up on re-entry, because of a gap in its insulation tiles. Superheated gases made their way into the craft during re-entry, causing it to disintegrate. The accident killed all seven astronauts aboard.

After the disaster, NASA investigators grounded all shuttles, and set stringent safety conditions on any subsequent flights. The return to flight date was shifted back by three days in February after concerns were raised about lighting conditions during the launch.

At that stage, six of the fifteen criteria were still outstanding, but now NASA says it has everything in place. An independent watchdog is expected to give its formal approval next week.

In a report issued yesterday (Tuesday), NASA said: "As we look forward to the limited launch window opportunities in 2005, it is reasonable to ask ourselves if the shuttle is safe enough. Although we will never eliminate all the risks from our space shuttle missions, we are confident that we have eliminated those that constituted the proximate cause of the Columbia loss."

The loss of Columbia has also cast a shadow over the future of the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA has grounded all missions on a non-space station orbit, meaning Hubble's much needed service mission has been scrapped. ®

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