MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

NASA's next shuttle launch, set for Saturday, will be the first to carry a special cable. Everyone hopes it won't be needed. The crew would use the cable to hotwire the shuttle so it would come back to earth on autopilot while the crew waits aboard the international space station. That's one of many emergency plans NASA has been grappling with since the Columbia shuttle accident in 2003.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

Last year's launch, the first since Columbia, was a success with a couple asterisks. A camera showed that during launch, a one-pound piece of insulation broke off the fuel tank. A similar chunk had punched a fatal hole in Columbia's wing. And on the way up, the shuttle plowed into a vulture. So for this upcoming launch, NASA has done more work on the phone and a road kill posse is picking up dead animals to keep vultures away from the launchpad.

This month, NASA chief Michael Griffin said the future of the entire shuttle program is on the line.

Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (NASA): If we were to lose another vehicle, I will tell you right now that I would be moving to figure out a way to shut the program down. I think at that point we're done. I'm sorry if that sounds too blunt for some, but that's where I am.

KESTENBAUM: Griffin spoke after a meeting called the flight readiness review. Two of his senior officials, the lead engineer and lead safety officer, voiced concerns about flying without taking additional steps to prevent foam from coming off. But in the end, NASA decided to go ahead.

Griffin said he felt comfortable in part because there are emergency plans in place. If something damages the shuttle's delicate heat shields, the astronauts can try to repair them. They have patch kits on board. But the kits have not been fully tested and shuttle program manager Wayne Hale points out the shuttles thermal protection system has to withstand temperatures of 3000 degrees on reentry, as hot as the visible surface of the sun.

Mr. WAYNE HALE (NASA): The thermal protection system on the orbiter is a marvelous, marvelous invention. It weighs very little and it insulates incredibly well. And to say that we are gonna go out on orbit and patch a hole in it that would be able to survive that environment, I mean that is a huge technological challenge we've been working on for the last four years now.

KESTENBAUM: And even then, what to do with a repaired shuttle. Should the astronauts risk coming down in it or should they hang out on the space station and let the shuttle try to reenter the atmosphere on its own, empty? This is where the special cable could come in.

Mr. STEVE POULOS (NASA): What we call it is a remote control orbiter in flight maintenance cable. 28 feet long and 5.4 pounds.

KESTENBAUM: Steve Poulos is head of the orbiter project office. The cable would allow the crew to rig the shuttle so the things they usual do themselves, like lowering the landing gear or deploying the parachute could be done automatically or controlled from the ground.

Mr. POULOS: I'm confident the orbiter could reenter and land safely. There have been enough tests, the orbiter is pretty much on autopilot through most of the reentry profile.

KESTENBAUM: There are risks here, too, though. If the patch doesn't hold and the shuttle breaks up, the pieces could fall on populated areas. Which brings us to NASA's final option for what to do if the shuttle is damaged during launch. Dump it in the ocean while the crew waits on the space station to be rescued. NASA says there are 80 days of supplies and a rescue shuttle, Atlantis, could be rushed to the launch pad in perhaps 25 days.

If such a mission has to be flow, Paul Dye would will be the flight director.

Mr. PAUL DYE (NASA): There's a lot of people. We can bring back a total of eleven folks.

KESTENBAUM: Where do you put them all?

Mr. DYE: In the middeck, where you've got seven people laying down on their backs on the middeck floor. It's tight.

KESTENBAUM: The Russians could also send a Soyuz up to help bring people down. But Paul Dye says the chances of these emergency plans coming into are small. Otherwise, he says, NASA would not be going ahead with the launch on Saturday.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

NORRIS: There's more about NASA's safety changes for the shuttle Discovery at NPR.org.

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