NASA officials are working to return the space shuttle to orbit as early as this fall, with plans to quickly correct flaws in the system uncovered by the board investigating the Columbia accident.
Top NASA officials said Friday they are instructing engineers to plan any changes needed to resume the shuttle program "as soon as practicable" after the investigation board determines why Columbia broke apart on Feb. 1.
The goal was set by William Readdy, NASA's chief of space flight, in a memo to department heads.
Readdy said engineers were to review specific problems being studied by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, including how foam insulation debris peeled off the shuttle's external fuel tank and smashed into the craft's left wing during launch.
A leading theory of the accident is thermal protection tiles on the wing were damaged, allowing superheated gas during re-entry to penetrate the wing and soften the metal structure.
The effort to resume the program will include a review of ways to inspect and repair damaged tiles while the shuttle is in orbit. While Columbia was in space, a team of engineers analyzed films and concluded the foam debris incident had not caused enough damage to endanger the spacecraft. Some officials said even if problems had been found, there was nothing that could have been done to fix them.
Readdy's memo also called for a review of NASA policies that permit prelaunch waivers on some mission safety rules, and a look at methods used to identify inflight safety problems.
Before the investigators release their report, NASA's engineers will concentrate on problems the board has publicly identified, such as the insulation debris and possible broken tiles.
"That's the elephant in the room," Readdy said. "We can't ignore those."
NASA's plans call for Atlantis to return to space with a crew trained to add elements to the international space station and to rotate crew members aboard the station. The mission would be the 114th shuttle flight and would be commanded by veteran astronaut Eileen Collins.
Readdy also responded to published reports that he declined an offer from an agency, apparently the Department of Defense, to take pictures of Columbia while it was in orbit.
Readdy said an unidentified NASA official told him "an individual from another agency" offered to use "assets" to observe Columbia in orbit, presumably to determine if there was visible damage. The request, he was told, would have to be on an emergency or high priority basis.
Readdy said he told the official the shuttle program office had evaluated the risks from the launch debris and concluded there was no safety concern.
He said the space shuttle program was well aware of the capabilities of the other agency "and had concluded that the offer would not contribute to the analysis" of Columbia's problems.
He said he told the NASA official to accept the offer from the agency on a "not to interfere" basis, meaning the agency could take the pictures as long as that effort did not interfere with the principal work of that agency.
"If I thought for a second that there was anything that would be added to the discussion, that safety of flight issues were involved, I would not have hesitated" to accept the offer fully, Readdy said.