Shuttle to fly 13 July

Safety concerns set aside?

NASA has set the date for the Shuttle's launch, despite suggestions from an independent safety panel earlier this week that all the safety requirements have not yet been met. Discovery is now slated to take to the skies on 13 July, commanded by Eileen Collins.

Chief administrator Michael Griffin said that the space agency had come to the decision after "a vigorous, healthy discussion", adding that while improvements to safety have been made since the loss of Columbia, people need to remember that space flight is an inherently risky business.

The panel concluded on Monday this week that NASA had only partly complied with the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's recommendations, although it commended its efforts. Specifically, the panel said NASA had only met 12 of the 15 recommendations of the CIAB. It said the three NASA had not met were the most fundamentally important, including one that the external tank be fixed so that debris could not fall and damage any part of the shuttle before take-off.

Speaking about the safety panel's findings, Griffin told the press that the panel had looked very literally at some of the safety recommendations. Some recommendations, he added, were currently impossible to implement. "We are up against the limits of our human knowledge," he told Reuters.

Discovery will be the first Shuttle to fly since the Columbia disaster in 2003. A falling chunk of foam damaged the shuttle during take off. When the craft re-entered the atmosphere, that damage was sufficient to cause Columbia to disintegrate, killing all seven astronauts on board.

The 13 July mission is being described as a "test flight". Griffin said that he won't be celebrating until all the Shuttle's wheels are down and the engines are switched off. ®

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