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Panel warns of increased safety woes as shuttles age

WASHINGTON — NASA should re-examine the way it certifies space shuttles as safe to launch because of increasing problems discovered last year that can be blamed on the shuttle fleet's age, the agency's safety panel said Tuesday.

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel also criticized NASA for not promising to install mechanisms on the shuttles to help astronauts escape during a disaster, but it concluded that safety for the shuttle program has been a priority that was "first and foremost" at the agency.

The latest report by the panel covered the months immediately preceding the Columbia shuttle accident, so it was not expected to comment on any part of that continuing investigation. The 106-page report noted that it was finished before the Feb. 1 accident and that "no changes have been made to the report as a result of the loss of Columbia."

The panel cited some minor problems during the five shuttle missions in 2002 that it blamed on the fleet's increasing age. It said cracks, leaks and other failures "provide evidence of this degradation and indicate the need for re-evaluation of the certification criteria" for shuttle parts.

The panel found that these flaws "escaped detection by standard preflight tests and were found late in the launch process," which caused launch delays. The failed systems had adequate backups, and "no significant safety impacts resulted from these events."

The report did not mention some other problems, such as one where insulating foam broke off the same part of Atlantis' external fuel tank where investigators now believe debris broke away and smashed against Columbia's left wing.

The foam during that October 2002 liftoff peeled away from an area called the bipod ramp, close to the V-shaped structure that connects a shuttle to the orange-colored fuel tank. Metal attachments on the tank are covered with ramp-shaped insulating foam that protrudes noticeably from the tank's surface.

Officials found damage to part of the left solid rocket booster on Atlantis that was 4 inches wide and 3 inches deep but later said it was unclear whether the breakaway foam was responsible or the damage occurred when the reusable booster fell into the ocean.

Earlier reports from the safety panel have described significant concerns for shuttle safety in the future because of funding shortages, and the board investigating Columbia's breakup has indicated it is reviewing past findings of the advisory panel.

Last year's chairman, Richard D. Blomberg, told Congress a year ago that, "I have never been as concerned for space shuttle safety as I am right now," and complained that NASA's budget and aging shuttles was "planting the seeds for future danger."

The nine-member panel, chartered by Congress in 1967, reviews NASA safety plans, especially those for the shuttle and International Space Station. It reports to lawmakers and NASA's administrator, who appoints the members himself to six-year terms and also approves the choice of consultants who work with the panel.

The chairwoman is Shirley McCarty, a retired computer consultant.

NASA's associate administrator for safety, former astronaut Bryan O'Connor, participates as an ex-officio member. O'Connor was pilot on a 1985 flight of Atlantis and crew commander aboard Columbia's mission in June 1991. He was replaced earlier this month as ex-officio member of the Columbia investigation board at the request of the chairman, Harold Gehman.