- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

An independent panel urged NASA yesterday to improve its inspection of the thermal protection tiles that line the wings of its space shuttles.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board also said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration should have the military routinely photograph shuttle flights with its spy satellites, a measure NASA already has adopted.
The two recommendations from the group leading the inquiry into the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster are the first issued since the orbiter disintegrated Feb. 1, killing the seven-member crew.
The accident investigation board can't force NASA to change its policies. But after a speech at the National Press Club yesterday, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the agency has every intention of abiding by the recommendations.
"We will implement every recommendation," he said.
The investigation board doesn't expect to complete its inquiry before June, but the 13-member group said the proposed changes are obvious in light of findings about the disaster.
Investigators believe a breach formed on Columbia's left wing 81 seconds after launch on Jan. 16, allowing gases to penetrate the orbiter during re-entry. They singled out NASA's inspection procedure because it might have overlooked damage that contributed to fiery accident.
"This recommendation was issued because of the board's finding that current inspection techniques are not adequate to assess structural integrity of [tiles on the leading edge of the shuttle wings], supporting structure and attaching hardware," the accident investigation board wrote in its two-page statement.
"I'm amazed NASA hadn't said that long ago. That recommendation makes a lot of sense," said Michael Wiskerchen, associate director of the California Space Institute at the University of California-San Diego and part of a team appointed after the Challenger explosion in 1986 to improve shuttle safety.
NASA was using a visual inspection and tapping the carbon panels to search for air pockets.
Nearly all the carbon panels on the leading edge of the Columbia's wings had been on the shuttle since it was built. Columbia was near the end of its 28th flight when it disintegrated over Texas.
Investigators said NASA should use technology to inspect the wing panels, and it wrote in its report that X-rays and CT scans were being used throughout the Columbia inquiry to find panel defects.
Mr. O'Keefe said it is too early to know how NASA will test wing tiles in the future, but he indicated the agency could have difficulty finding a method that works.
"We are going to have a challenge to develop the technology to do that," he said.
Much of the responsibility to establish a high-tech method to inspect the panels will fall to Michael A. Greenfield, NASA's associate deputy administrator for technical programs. Mr. Greenfield said the agency is experimenting with X-ray technology and ultrasonics, or sound waves.
The agency wasn't using such technology earlier to track down damaged panels because "we were satisfied with the technique we had," Mr. Greenfield said.
Air Force Maj. Gen. John Barry, a member of the accident investigation board, said this month that some leading-edge wing tiles have been discovered with up to 40 pinholes. It is believed zinc in paint leaching from the launch tower at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., caused oxidation that led to the holes' formation.
NASA hopes to return to flight later this year, and it may introduce its own measures to improve shuttle safety. The agency's engineers are considering putting a lightweight metal cover over a portion of the external fuel tanks that help power shuttles. The agency also is considering whether to have astronauts go on spacewalks to repair the shuttle in orbit.

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