Even before investigators determine what destroyed the Columbia spacecraft, NASA has begun plans to launch one of the three remaining shuttles as early as next fall, the agency's top official said Friday.
In addition, the agency will convene experts in Louisiana next week to examine what must be done to keep the orbiter fleet flying until the middle of the next decade, and perhaps until 2020.
The announcements by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe showed the Bush administration's firm commitment to a space shuttle program reeling from its second disaster in 17 years.
O'Keefe said, as he has repeatedly since the Columbia broke apart on Feb. 1 as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere, that NASA's next steps will be guided by the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. But he said it made no sense for the agency to stand still while that board deliberates.
"We're not just sitting here waiting for a report," O'Keefe said in a news conference at NASA headquarters. His aim, he said, is "to get ourselves ready and prepared to move ahead."
Officials acknowledge that a fall goal for the next shuttle launch is extremely ambitious. But they are clearly seeking to push forward far faster than NASA did after the Challenger blew up in January 1986. It took 32 months after that accident before the agency resumed shuttle flights.
This time, there is added pressure to get the shuttles operating again. An international space station is now in orbit and largely -- though not wholly -- dependent on the shuttle fleet to receive supplies and rotate crews.
The shuttle Atlantis, originally scheduled to fly to the space station this month, was grounded indefinitely after the Columbia disaster, as were Endeavour and Discovery.
Lawmakers applauded NASA for moving forward on shuttle flight planning, but they said the agency should be ready for longer delays.
"I don't think it's ever too early to make plans," said Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, a senior Democrat on the House Science Committee. "But it is very, very optimistic to think there can be a return to flight this fall. You're going to have to have contingency plans of six, 12, 18, 24, 30 months."
William F. Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for spaceflight, outlined the "return to flight" plan in a short internal memorandum sent Wednesday, after the burial of Navy Capt. David M. Brown, the last of the seven Columbia astronauts to be interred.
Readdy said the plan would be adjusted after the investigation board releases its recommendations.
But he said NASA would seek "a safe return to flight as soon as practicable. As a goal, the [space shuttle program] shall plan for corrective actions and reviews which support a launch opportunity as early as the fall of 2003."
In the memo, Readdy said NASA should take steps to address issues that have emerged since the Columbia breakup, including:
* A review of key shuttle systems and the insulation on the external tank, a focus of concern after debris hit the Columbia's left wing on liftoff;
* The possibility of a new system for fixing damaged thermal tiles during a flight;
* Potential reforms of how NASA's senior management oversees safety;
* A review of policies on taking photographs of the shuttles during flight.
On the last item, Readdy and O'Keefe were on the defensive Friday after reports emerged this week that NASA had been in contact with U.S. intelligence officials days before the accident about the possibility of examining the Columbia with a spy satellite.
Readdy acknowledged that one agency -- which he declined to name -- offered to help procure up-close images in the last days of the shuttle's mission. Reading excerpts of a statement he gave to investigators on Feb. 3, Readdy said that he accepted the offer of help on the condition that it would not interfere with other national priorities. He declined to divulge further details.
The Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, reported that the offer came from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and that nothing came from its talks with NASA.
Readdy stressed that at the time of the discussions, a few days before the disaster, NASA was still confident that Columbia would land safely.
"If I had thought for a second there was a safety of flight issue, we would have availed ourselves of every possible resource" to help the shuttle crew, he said.