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Shuttles will soar again 'stronger, smarter, safer'

NASA hopes to launch Atlantis in early March

HOUSTON — NASA is embarking on the "daunting" process of returning the remaining space shuttles to the skies through a process that will make the program "stronger and smarter and safer," its top official for space flight said Monday.

Briefing reporters at the Johnson Space Center here on a newly released blueprint for returning to flight, the official, associate administrator William F. Readdy, said the agency would not rush the shuttle fleet back into space.

While the plan calls for a return to flight as early as next March, he added: "We will converge on a viable return to flight launch date, whether that turns out to be March, or April, or May, or June, or July — so be it. We will be safety-driven, not schedule-driven."

The NASA document calls for development of entirely new methods for preventing the kind of damage that brought down the shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, and for detecting and repairing damage that slips through the new procedures. "We're going to do this one bite of the elephant at a time," Readdy said.

The plan proposes launching the shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station sometime from March 11 to April 6. While the original purpose of this flight was to carry supplies and a new crew to the station, its primary mission now would be as a developmental flight to test new procedures and safety equipment recommended by the board that investigated the Columbia disaster.

Readdy called the plan an "evolving document" that will change as NASA learns more about the process and incorporates additional material that is expected to emerge from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and congressional inquiries into the disaster.

Readdy said the proposed March or April launching date would serve as guidance in beginning a process that would help to determine what needs to be done most urgently and how to best accomplish the goals will emerge. "The only way to be able to tease those out, to drive those out, is to set some kind of planning date," he said, "so you can start marching all together for return to flight."

NASA has resolved to launch future shuttle flights only in daylight, so any liftoff damage will be readily visible. If the date proves impractical, the next opportunities for daylight liftoffs when the launching pad is in proper alignment with the space station are May 19 to June 28 and July 18 to Aug. 26, he said.