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To do that, NASA may have to devote more funding to testing, Mr. Gehman said.

Marcia Smith, who studies the space agency for the Congressional Research Service, said deep cuts to the NASA budget in the mid-1990s could have hurt the shuttle program.

But she said it is not clear whether the spending cuts are responsible for the Columbia mishap.

NASA’s budget for the shuttle program fell from $4.05 billion in fiscal 1993 to $3.2 billion in fiscal 2002.

Russell Turner, a former chief executive at the United Space Alliance LLC, NASA’s primary contractor, said the company could lose up to $70 million if NASA decides it is accountable for the loss of Columbia.

Investigators also said yesterday they have discovered a new crack in a carbon panel they shot a piece of foam insulation at during testing at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio yesterday.

Investigators believe a piece of foam peeled from Columbia’s external fuel tank and pierced the shuttle’s left wing, allowing scorching gases to enter its left wing and destroy it during re-entry Feb. 1. All seven crew members died when Columbia disintegrated.