- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

The group investigating the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster will hold a public hearing next week to hear specialists discuss theories about the craft's disintegration during descent.
Retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., speaking yesterday at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the Columbia Accident Investigation Board will hold the hearing Feb. 27, though a location has not been determined.
"We will invite experts who are not associated with any U.S. government program who have theories or hypotheses, who have written to us or provided research documents, to express to us their opinions," Adm. Gehman said. "That way we get input … not by any government agency."
Investigators have met with hundreds of people, Adm. Gehman said in the investigation board's second press conference. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration appointed the committee hours after Columbia disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1.
Adm. Gehman said he expects the inquiry to proceed quickly as the group splits into three subcommittees to investigate operational, management, training, maintenance and engineering issues.
"The board was furiously writing notes [during meetings with NASA personnel and contractors]. It was extraordinarily fruitful and gave us tons of things to follow up on. As we speak, board members are fanning out across the country. The pace of this investigation is picking up significantly," Adm. Gehman said.
He said the group is at a disadvantage because recovery crews in Texas and Louisiana have not found a significant number of pieces of the shuttle.
"We still need debris," Adm. Gehman said. "Right now we have a tiny, tiny fraction of the orbiter."
Nearly 4,000 pieces of debris have been shipped to the Kennedy Space Center. About 2,600 of those pieces have been identified and cataloged. An additional 10,000 pieces are headed to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Adm. Gehman said investigators have authorized workers to take apart landing gear found by recovery crews to determine whether it is from Columbia's left or right side.
NASA spokesman Steve Nesbitt said the recovery effort still could yield clues, but it has been days since anyone has discovered a significant piece of the shuttle.
"Obviously, you're going to find the most things in the first few days," Mr. Nesbitt said. The recovery effort "certainly hasn't hit a wall. There is a rich amount of information to be mined. It's just going to take some time."
Investigators say they believe a breach in the shuttle's left wing could have caused the catastrophe. The accident investigation board confirmed last week that a hole likely allowed hot gas to penetrate the wing.
James N. Hallock, one of the investigators and the Transportation Department's chief of the aviation safety division, called the breach a "serious contender" in Columbia's demise and said investigators must try to understand how superheated gases that would have seeped through the hole could have affected the shuttle.
They will look for signs of overheating by searching for droplets of aluminum which melts at approximately 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit on fragments of the shuttle, which is subjected to temperatures of 3,000 degrees during re-entry.
Mr. Hallock, the head of one of the subcommittees, did not speculate on what could have caused the breach. He said his team must determine whether orbital debris or a piece of insulating foam that separated from an external fuel tank and hit the left wing had a role in piercing the orbiter's skin.
Investigators have dismissed speculation that the foam, by itself, could cause catastrophic damage, but Mr. Hallock said a piece of metal might have been attached to the foam.
He said a breach would have to be bigger than a pinhole to cause enough damage to destroy the shuttle. Once the breach formed, he said, atmospheric gases would have been so hot that they would cause a blowtorch effect and ignite the wing's interior.


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