- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration promised yesterday to resume shuttle flights as early as June, and several key senators vowed renewed support for the nation's space program.
President Bush will propose a nearly $470 million boost in NASA's budget for fiscal 2004, an administration official said Sunday, promising investigators would look into whether past cutbacks played any part in the space shuttle Columbia disaster.
NASA also announced that it had appointed a retired admiral to lead its investigation into the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia on Saturday.
"Once we find out what that cause was, and once we correct that, we're going to fly again," NASA chief Sean O'Keefe said on ABC's "This Week" yesterday.
Several members of Congress promised renewed commitment to U.S. space-exploration endeavors.
"We can't step back," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, said on "Fox News Sunday," adding, "We wouldn't be the greatest country on Earth if we did."
Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said the disaster should lead to a renewal of the U.S. commitment to space programs.
"We've got to lift the human spirit," he said. "We've got to fulfill our destiny as people of explorers and adventurers, and go to Mars and back to the Moon."
The nation's astronauts, including two of the earliest ones, said the dangers of space travel were well-known and should not deter exploration.
"I'd be down there tomorrow morning," said John H. Glenn Jr., 81, on NBC's "Meet the Press." In 1962, he became the first American to orbit the Earth.
Scott Carpenter, 77, one of the seven Mercury astronauts, said, "The people of this nation will not allow us to abandon our leadership in space. We're going to Mars."
NASA officials, in an early search for clues, said yesterday that Columbia experienced a sharp and sudden rise in temperature on its fuselage before it began to disintegrate. The rise was followed by increased drag on the spacecraft that caused its flight system to adjust the path of the ship.
That information is preliminary, but the officials said it could suggest that the thermal tiles designed to protect the shuttle from burning up during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere were damaged or missing, possibly from an episode earlier in the shuttle's flight.
On the round of morning talk shows yesterday, Mr. O'Keefe promised a round-the-clock investigation would be thorough and disinterested.
The investigation would include studying photographs taken by satellites, reviewing transmissions from the crew and records from the shuttle's sensors, and examining bits of debris found scattered through east Texas and northwestern Louisiana.
Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., who helped lead the Pentagon's inquiry into the USS Cole terrorist bombing in 2000, will be the chairman of the independent investigative commission, dubbed the Space Shuttle Mishap Interagency Investigation Board. Members will inquire into all aspects of the doomed flight. The shuttle disintegrated nearly 40 miles over Texas, killing all seven astronauts aboard. It was traveling at more than 12,000 mph toward the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
"[Adm. Gehman] is well versed in understanding exactly how to go about looking at the forensics of any of these cases and coming up with the causal effects of what could occur," Mr. O'Keefe said on "This Week."
"We're going to find out what led to this, retrace all the steps that were involved and all the events from the time we lost communication with the [crew] and leave absolutely no stone unturned in that process."
Adm. Gehman's commission will be one of at least three investigating the crash. NASA will conduct its own inquiry, as will the House Science Committee, chaired by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican.
"The NASA investigation will focus more on the technical aspects," Mr. Boehlert said on "This Week." "We have to be concerned about the policy aspects and what is the future of human space flight."
Mr. O'Keefe said investigators initially would focus on whether insulation that broke loose from a fuel tank during the Jan. 16 takeoff damaged heat-protecting tiles, ultimately dooming its return 16 days later.
"That's one of the earliest indications," he said yesterday.
U.S. officials are, however, considering at least three possibilities. The first is that the shuttle could have lost one of its heat-shield tiles that protect the craft against temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere.
Another is that the shuttle could have lost control of one of the elevon wing flaps. The flaps allow the shuttle to carry out a series of wide turns as it comes through the atmosphere so that it can slow down.
Metal fatigue also could be a cause. The enormous stress on the aluminum and graphite shell could have broken up the shuttle, the oldest in service when it went up. It was first launched in 1981.
Meanwhile, lawmakers, who also appeared on the talk shows, promised their own inquiry into the crash.
Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, said on "This Week" that hearings would be held in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
"The key issue for us in Congress is why did it happen, how did it happen, how do we fix it and then how do we project on forward with manned spaceflight," said Mr. Brownback, chairman of the science, technology and space subcommittee. "We need to continue that for the vision of the country and the vision of the world."
Mr. O'Keefe said Adm. Gehman's commission will sift through the wreckage being gathered from across Texas and Louisiana and trucked under tight security to Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., for reconstruction and analysis.
"At this stage we're making sure that we don't take any pet theory or any one approach and favoring over one or another," Mr. O'Keefe said on "Fox News Sunday." "We're making sure we look at every possible piece of evidence, every possible element of what could have gone wrong."
Adm. Gehman, who was commander in chief of U.S. Joint Forces Command until retirement in 2000, was expected to arrive with a team of investigators in Shreveport late yesterday. His commission is scheduled to hold its first meeting today at Barksdale.
Mr. O'Keefe said the space agency will be ready to launch a shuttle once the cause of the crash is found and questions addressed. NASA has postponed all shuttle flights; five shuttle missions had been scheduled for 2003. Space Shuttle Atlantis was set to fly March 1. The Jan. 28, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger explosion shut down the shuttle program for 32 months, while a commission appointed by President Reagan investigated the incident.
Mr. O'Keefe said the agency must get back to flying soon to replace a team of astronauts and cosmonauts Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit and Nikolai Budarin aboard the International Space Station.
The space station depends on shuttles and Russian spacecraft for supplies. The team has enough food and fuel to last them through June. Russian officials yesterday sent off a cargo rocket carrying more food and fuel to the space station. That mission was scheduled before the Columbia disaster.
In addition to Adm. Gehman, other members of the Space Shuttle Mishap Interagency Investigation Board are:
Rear Adm. Stephen Turcotte, commander, U.S. Naval Safety Center in Norfolk.
Maj. Gen. John L. Barry, director, plans and programs, headquarters Air Force Materiel Command, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth W. Hess, commander, Air Force chief of safety, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
James N. Hallock, aviation safety division chief, Transportation Department.
Steven B. Wallace, director of accident investigation, Federal Aviation Administration.
Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, commander, 21st Space Wing, Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
G. Scott Hubbard, director at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Ex-officio member and former astronaut Bryan D. O'Connor, NASA's associate administrator from the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance.
Panel executive secretary Theron Bradley Jr., NASA's chief engineer from agency headquarters in Washington.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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