NEW ORLEANS, March 19 (UPI) -- With just three space shuttles left to implement NASA's long-term goal of completing and servicing the International Space Station, improving the fleet's safety is not an option but a necessity, the agency's deputy administrator for space flight said Wednesday.
Even before the loss of shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, NASA had been spending $200 million to $300 million a year on upgrades to keep the fleet flying until 2022. The accident, which is being investigated by an independent commission working in conjunction with NASA, added a note of urgency to the Shuttle Life Extension Program, which began in November 2002.
About 200 NASA managers and contractor personnel are meeting this week at the Michoud Assembly Facility for the first of what is expected to become an annual summit on the shuttle's future.
NASA remains committed to flying the shuttles, provided the Columbia Accident Investigation Board does not return a finding that determines the craft are unsafe to resume operations, said Michael Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator for the space station and space shuttle programs.
Kostelnik said he expects the board to come up with the probable cause of Columbia's demise within 30 to 40 days.
Whether the age of Columbia contributed to the accident is of key interest to NASA, which is depending on the shuttles to finish building the space station and keep it adequately supplied for a robust array of science missions. The design lifetime of the shuttles is 100 flights each, but the ships were expected to fly much more often than current projections.
"It was always envisioned that we'd fly those flights much earlier," Kostelnik said. "We're going into uncharted waters."
Columbia, which made its first flight in 1981, was completing only its 28th mission when it was destroyed as it re-entered the atmosphere, killing its seven-member crew.
NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said he thinks the board will find the accident was caused by a combination of several factors, including a hardware failure, a process breakdown and misjudgment.
"I don't expect that there is going to be an 'a-ha!' moment," said O'Keefe, who addressed the summit participants during a lunch break.
Concurrent with changes to shuttle hardware and operations to return the fleet to service, NASA wants to make sure the shuttles can continue to fly through 2022.
For now, NASA is not considering completing the station with expendable launchers, said Kostelnik. "The shuttle is the only vehicle that can do the job in the near term," he said. "If there was a better value way, we would be doing it."
New programs, such as the Orbital Space Plane, will supplement the shuttle, not replace it, he added. NASA is looking into accelerating development of the space plane, which will be used to ferry crews to and from the station, leaving the shuttle free to tote cargo and fly with a smaller crew.
Safety enhancements, such as ejection seats or a crew cabin that can be jettisoned in case of emergency, might become a viable option, Kostelnik said.
Other safety and performance enhancements under discussion include more powerful solid rocket boosters that will eliminate the risky but untried maneuver to return to the launch site in case of a main engine failure during the first few minutes of flight.
Contractors envision NASA spending between $400 million and $600 million a year on shuttle upgrades over the next several years, then boost the investment to $800 million to $1 billion each year from 2006 to 2012, said Boeing's Mike Mott.