By Irene Mona Klotz
at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Nearly 18 months after Columbia's shocking demise, sistership Discovery is in the home stretch of a massive overhaul to once again return the shuttle fleet to flight.
Discovery is being prepared for a 2005 launch
Overseen by an ambitious and soft-spoken 34-year-old woman, shuttle Discovery stands still inside a massive hangar, encased by work platforms like the queen bee in a hive.
Technicians and engineers, huddled in groups of three or four, crawl over and inside the ship, attaching panels, monitoring test equipment, consulting work sheets.
They progress slowly and steadily, one shift of workers passing off to another, with an occasional overnight team called in to complete the odd job as well.
Right now, all is on schedule for Discovery to leave the processing hangar shortly after the New Year so it can be outfitted with a new shed-proof external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters.
The ship is then slated to be rolled out to the launch pad and put into orbit alongside the space station in March or April.
It will be Nasa's first foray into space on its own passenger-carrying vessel since Columbia and its seven-member crew were lost during a landing attempt on 1 Feb, 2003.
Discovery played a similar role in 1988, two-and-a-half-years after the first shuttle accident.
Seven astronauts were killed aboard Challenger as well, and though the technical cause of the ships' demise differed - Challenger was lost because of a defective booster, Columbia because of tank debris piercing the heat shield - investigations traced both accidents to flawed management practices.
Nasa is still in the midst of sorting out how to re-invent itself, but the equipment fixes are well under way.
In addition to a modified tank design, one that hopefully will not shed chunks of insulating foam on the orbiter as it blasts into space, the post-Columbia upgrades include 88 new heat and acceleration sensors placed throughout the inside of the wings.
Stilson is working through her to-do list
The data will be fed to engineers after launch so they can assess if there were any potentially hazardous impacts on the critical wing heat panels.
More cameras will be laced to the shuttle to monitor the launch and new inspections have been added to every post-flight to-do list.
The panel overseeing Nasa's implementation of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's recommendations said last week the agency had completed five of 15 requirements for flight.
Nasa may need some leeway for some of the other requirements, however. For example, the agency will be unable to develop by March a repair option for a hole in the wing as large as the one that downed Columbia.
Rather, Nasa is focused on preventing debris impacts in the first place and developing safe haven options aboard the space station if a shuttle crew is unable to return home on its launch vehicle.
Workers at the shuttle home port are painstakingly piecing the shuttle together to deliver a clean ship to space.
"There is a lot of work ahead of us," said vehicle manager Stephanie Stilson, who counted up roughly 100 systems tests that remain to be done.
"We've turned the corner though," she added. "Our major components are now back on the structure."
Future flights will be photographed from many more angles
The shuttle team will be tasked to have not only Discovery ready to launch, but Atlantis as well. That will give managers more options should an in-orbit rescue be necessary.
Once shuttle missions resume, Nasa will be consumed with finishing the International Space Station and positioning it for on-going operations without future shuttle servicing calls.
Partners last week agreed to continue working toward expanding the station crew size to six astronauts.
Details on how additional Russian Soyuz lifeboats would be purchased, as well as what research programmes the crewmembers would be working on, remain pending.