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Shuttle flights still a go for Canada, agency says Despite mistakes, NASA wasn't casual about safety, former astronaut tells media

Despite mistakes, NASA wasn't casual about safety, former astronaut tells media

LONGUEUIL, QUE.

da's space czar said he's committed to sending Canadian astronauts back on shuttle flights as early as next year, despite a U.S. government inquiry's finding that NASA had sacrificed safety on previous missions.

Marc Garneau, head of the Canadian Space Agency, said the report issued this week exposed failings at the U.S. agency, including what he called "complacency" due to its record of successful shuttle flights.

The report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded the root cause of February's shuttle crash was a culture at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that for two decades had sacrificed safety in the pursuit of budget efficiency and tight schedules.

But Mr. Garneau carefully avoided pointing fingers at his U.S. counterpart.

"Yes, NASA made mistakes," he told reporters yesterday at space agency headquarters near Montreal. "But for people to suggest that this was an organization almost out of control and getting very casual about safety is totally misleading."

Risk is part and parcel of space exploration, he added: "If we were obliged to stop and be 100-per-cent confident of all the possibilities for problems, the shuttle would never take off."

Canadian astronauts will continue to train "in anticipation of a safe return to flight," he said. Astronauts Steve MacLean and Dave Williams, whose flights were held up this year because of the Columbia disaster, should see their missions rescheduled for sometime next year, Mr. Garneau said.

"It looks good for 2004."

Dozens of experiments by Canadian scientists, most of them involving the effects of lack of gravity on various materials, will also be delayed at the international space station, he said.

NASA wants to resume shuttle flights, perhaps as early as spring, mainly to continue working on the space outpost. The shuttle is the only vehicle capable of carrying large pieces to assemble the station.

But investigators in the United States this week said the agency's tight construction goals were a major factor in putting the Columbia at risk.

Several observers have expressed skepticism that flights to the space station can resume next spring, even if NASA properly heeds only the minimal recommendations in this week's report. Investigators said NASA had to make 15 specific changes before shuttles could get off the ground again. Mr. Garneau said he's confident that NASA will hold off on future flights until those core recommendations are followed.

"You can be sure that they will take whatever time is necessary to make sure that they fully satisfy every one of those requirements."

Another short-term Canadian casualty of the shuttle delays is the two-armed robot known as Dextre, scheduled for a 2005 launch. It is on hold, adding to storage costs.

The robot -- the Special Purpose Dextrose Manipulator -- is the final component of the Canadian robot arm and was supposed to be sent to the space station in 2002.

Canadian taxpayers have already spent $13-million in maintenance while it remains in storage.

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