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Discovery may be launched despite concerns from outside panel

WASHINGTON—NASA may launch the space shuttle Discovery next month even if an independent safety commission isn't convinced the space agency has fixed all the problems from the 2003 Columbia tragedy, NASA's new chief said Monday.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, in his first news conference, said if his managers convince him the shuttle is safe, he might proceed with launch plans without an all clear from the panel that was created after the loss of Columbia.

Discovery commander Eileen Collins said earlier this month she didn't see how NASA could launch without the independent group's blessing.

Griffin said it's unlikely NASA and the safety advisers will be at odds, but top shuttle managers Wayne Hale and Bill Parsons earlier this month told reporters they could envision a launch without the outside group's blessing.

A ticking clock makes such a clash possible.

NASA is still aiming to launch between May 15 and June 3, but the outside safety group is nowhere near ready to give the OK, even though it was planning to make a decision a month before the shuttle was scheduled to return to flight, whatever the date.

After an independent accident board chastised NASA for management and technical problems that it said triggered Columbia's accident, it said 15 recommendations needed to be satisfied before shuttles fly again.

The Return To Flight Task Force, headed by two former astronauts, was created to make sure that NASA satisfied those recommendations, along with a 16th that the task force added later.

As of April 14, only eight of the 16 had been finished, according to the task force. The task force, headed by ex-astronauts Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey, abruptly canceled a late March public hearing on outstanding issues because it said it lacked important data and other information from NASA.

The outstanding issues include major factors that caused Columbia to come apart. The Stafford-Covey commission, for example, hasn't concluded that NASA has:

_ Fixed the problem of foam falling off the external fuel tank and puncturing the delicate heat-protection system

_ Demonstrated reliable in-orbit repair techniques for the shuttle skin, if needed.

_ Kept budget and scheduling from being safety problems.

_ Improved management decision-making.

Much of the delay has been caused by slow technical sign-offs rather than NASA's failure to solve the problems, said Stafford-Covey member Robert Sieck, a former NASA launch director.

"It's just a matter of getting the information," Sieck said.

Griffin, a longtime space scientist, said he would weigh recommendations from NASA staff and the Stafford-Covey commission but rely heavily on the people who know the shuttle the best.

"I don't believe that technical decisions are a voting matter," he said. "Stafford-Covey will have their criteria; the line managers in charge of the program will have theirs."

Discovery Commander Collins, during a week of press briefings in Houston earlier this month, said her crew meets regularly with the Stafford-Covey group and agrees with the panel's decisions.

Even though she said she doesn't foresee flying without the panel's blessings, she insisted the crew and NASA are in accord.

"Personally, I think that we're going to be OK," Collins said. "We will not fly until we're ready."

Former astronaut and NASA top manager James Wetherbee, who contends NASA hasn't fixed its management problems, said he doubts that NASA could go ahead with a launch without Stafford-Covey approval.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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