- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 6 (UPI) — The NASA-appointed panel charged with finding the cause of the Columbia accident shifted its probe to the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Thursday, while rain and high winds bogged efforts to recover debris from the wreckage.

"It is with some relief that I welcome (the board members) here," shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said Thursday. "We need their expertise. We need their independent look at what we have been doing."

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, headed by retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., will be restructured to give it more independence from NASA and may gain additional technical experts and other professionals unaffiliated with the space agency.

A presidential commission was appointed to investigate the 1986 Challenger accident after it became apparent that NASA's own decision-making processes and management practices contributed to the accident. O'Keefe said Thursday he is determined to not repeat that mistake.

"It is a hard, hard legacy from the post-Challenger experience and we intend to absolutely guarantee that we not relive the experience in any way shape or form," he said.

"We are going to be guided by the board's findings," O'Keefe added. "The intention is they will reach conclusions and the conclusions will come from them and only them. We really are committed, absolutely committed to finding out what caused this accident. There is no other higher objective than to do that, if for no other reason than for the sake of the families involved. They have been nothing short of heroic."

A joint congressional hearing on the Columbia accident is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

Meanwhile, heavy rains and high winds slowed efforts to retrieve pieces of wreckage from the shuttle, which broke up over Texas on Saturday as it glided toward Florida for landing. NASA also is investigation reports of debris shed by Columbia as it flew over California and Arizona, before it fell from the sky.

Dittemore said as of Thursday, the farthest west shuttle debris had been found was in the Fort Worth, Texas, area. Video and photographs passed along to the agency by shuttle-watchers west of Texas are being analyzed and, if the images are valid, will be correlated with time-coded atmospheric data to derive probable locations for what could be key evidence about what happened during Columbia's final minutes of flight.

Recovery teams also are particularly focused on a piece of classified communications equipment, thought to be in Texas, that was used to relay encrypted between the shuttle and ground control teams, the Houston Chronicle reported Thursday.

Similar encryption devices are used by the military and some experts believe it could compromise U.S. security if the shuttle equipment fell into hostile hands.

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