- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Investigators are nearly certain a missing or broken seal between carbon panels let searing heat penetrate the Space Shuttle Columbia's left wing and cause the breakup that killed the seven astronauts aboard.
While that doesn't mean it is ready to conclude the inquiry into the shuttle disintegration, the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board plans to meet with NASA officials tomorrow and begin preparing a list of probable causes and contributing factors in the Feb. 1 loss.
"I think, 11 weeks into this, it's time we see where the evidence is trying to point us," said retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., chairman of the investigation.
As NASA officials become more certain about what happened to Columbia, shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore is planning to announce his resignation today.
Investigators said a single T-seal, a carbon piece that bridges gaps between carbon panels spanning the leading edges of the shuttle's wings, probably fell from Columbia after being struck. Pieces of foam insulation peeled off the external fuel tank 81 seconds after the Jan. 16 launch and hammered the left wing.
A missing T-seal would cause a gap in the wing about 1 inch wide and up to 3 feet long. Like the carbon panels lining the front of the shuttle's wings, the T-seals wrap around the wing's leading edge and are built to withstand the heat of re-entry.
"If it is a T-seal, you have a very long slit in which the heat can be building up and building up and building up," James N. Hallock, a member of the 13-member investigation board and chief of aviation safety at the Transportation Department, said at the group's weekly press conference in Houston.
Mr. Hallock said he is not sure if a long, narrow slit from a missing T-seal would have been large enough to allow a sufficient amount of atmospheric gases to penetrate Columbia's skin and destroy the shuttle. But heat during re-entry could have caused the slit to grow. The heat also could have caused a carbon panel to break off, increasing the size of the opening.
Navy Rear Adm. Stephen Turcotte, a member of the investigation board, said that while evidence supports the T-seal scenario, it's too soon to say just what happened.
"To say it was, in fact, a T-seal 100 percent, we suspect that. I mean, we're up there. We're up there near the 70s and 80s percent."
Mr. Turcotte also said a T-seal would not fall off simply because the shuttle was growing old.
"It had to be the result of some blunt-force trauma, the transfer of kinetic energy, somehow," he said.
Mr. Gehman said investigators are nearly done gathering information and plan to meet with NASA's own accident investigation team tomorrow.
"We've been saying we don't have any favored scenarios. But we are involved in a series of meetings where we will arrive at a preferred hypothesis," Mr. Gehman said.
Mr. Dittemore, 51, the head of NASA's space shuttle program, is expected to announce his resignation today. The decision is unrelated to the Columbia inquiry. He had planned to resign once Columbia landed, but delayed the decision after the disaster. NASA officials declined to discuss Mr. Dittemore's decision to leave. Glenn Mahone, NASA's assistant administrator for public affairs, said Mr. Dittemore had not filed a letter of resignation by the end of yesterday.
Mr. Dittemore became a familiar face after the disaster with his press conferences. He also said repeatedly that foam insulation could not have caused enough damage to Columbia to lead to its destruction.
NASA officials declined to say whether they have picked a candidate to replace Mr. Dittemore. One of his top subordinates is Linda Ham, who was head of the mission management team that oversaw shuttle operations during Columbia's flight.
Ms. Ham has been criticized for killing a request on Jan. 22 from a NASA engineer who suggested the agency get satellite images of Columbia from the Defense Department.

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