Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi practices a repair technique as part of NASA's return-to-flight activities. Photo: NASA

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, TX-Members of NASA's Space Flight Leadership Council, which is charged with the oversight of the agency's Return to Flight efforts, has set a target window for the next flight of the Space Shuttle to no earlier than March 2005.

The decision was made at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston after an extensive review of activities surrounding plans to return the orbiter fleet to safe flight.

The council also decided that the Space Shuttle Discovery will carry Commander Eileen Collins and a six-person crew into orbit for the Return to Flight mission, which is designated as STS-114.

Several issues factored into the decision to adjust the planning window for the mission. More time is needed to assess the condition of the Rudder Speed Brake Actuators on the Shuttle orbiters; research, analyze and test a larger area of the Space Shuttle's external fuel tank for potential foam insulation loss; and design and build a new camera and laser boom that would be used by the Space Shuttle's robotic arm to help inspect for possible damage while in orbit.

The new STS-114 launch-planning window, which extends from March 6 to April 18, 2005, is designed to focus the efforts of Space Shuttle employees working toward Return to Flight.

"We've said for months that we'd be driven by milestones, not a calendar. When we successfully reach those milestones, that's when the Space Shuttle will return to safe flight," says William Readdy, associate administrator for space flight. "The reports we got from the Space Shuttle Program indicate to us we need to change the launch planning window for STS-114. This decision reflects our commitment to taking the time we need to make the Space Shuttle safer."