- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

Columbia's crew was aware through most of its 16-day flight that debris that hit the underside of the space shuttle's left wing at launch posed a danger, but it never mentioned it during public transmissions, NASA said yesterday.
NASA officials yesterday abandoned the theory of insulation foam hitting wing tiles as the cause of the disaster. Earlier this week, NASA had called the launch mishap "the leading candidate" for what caused the shuttle to break apart upon re-entry to the atmosphere.
Eliezer Wolferman, father of Israeli astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon, said he was told that the crew had 60 to 90 seconds to react to the shuttle's re-entry problem before the craft shattered.
But nothing said by spacecraft commander Col. Rick D. Husband matched Apollo 13 astronaut James A. Lovell Jr.'s classic, "Houston, we've got a problem." This time, Houston declared the problem, and a calm "Roger" was all that came back from Columbia.
The astronauts knew of the potential for "anomalies" during re-entry, but the crew said nothing about it, even during the final 10 minutes, when the astronauts would have been aware that the spacecraft was pulling to the left.
"Of course they're attentive. They're focused on it," said a NASA worker in Houston.
Col. Husband "had a lot to do [during re-entry]. I think it would be natural to ask questions if he was uncomfortable, but I think he was satisfied with the information," shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore told reporters yesterday.
Remains of all seven astronauts were received with honors yesterday at the specialized Dover Air Force Base mortuary in Delaware.
Other officials said the crew had confidence in what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration called "the engineering truth" that the launch-day collision would not cause a fatal accident. Yesterday Mr. Dittemore re-adopted that theory.
"We don't believe it's this chunk of foam. It's got to be something else that we don't know about yet," Mr. Dittemore said, holding high a suitcase-sized block of foam during a briefing at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"As you focus your attention on the debris, we're focusing our attention on what we didn't see," he told reporters as he distributed the 16-by-20-by-6-inch foam blocks so they could get a feel for the size and mass of the material involved.
"Right now it just does not make sense to us that a piece of debris could be the root cause for the loss of Columbia and its crew. There's got to be another reason," Mr. Dittemore said, suggesting that the shuttle disaster was caused by "another event" that escaped detection.
He did not say what that other event might have been as he contradicted his own early suggestions that the hardened foam broke loose and dislodged protective tiles from a vulnerable spot beneath the wing.
Mr. Dittemore, in Houston, and his boss, Deputy Associate Administrator Michael Kostelnik, in Washington, rejected published reports that undetected ice that somehow became embedded in the foam made it a more potent force than engineers assumed in declaring it was not a threat to the spacecraft.
"It might be obvious to some where the problem occurred. It's certainly not clear to us," said Gen. Kostelnik, who is retired from the Air Force.
Both men said the crew was kept informed of engineering discussions about the left wing.
"Our policy is we tell the crew everything. We don't hold anything back from the commander on the scene," said Mr. Dittemore, who said the shuttle commander hears the facts and rationale for a decision but would be too busy to discuss it by radio or in television interviews.
"You would feel comfortable, and you would get on with the work at hand, because he was a busy camper. He had a lot to do. I think it would be natural to ask questions if he was uncomfortable, but I think he was satisfied with the information," Mr. Dittemore said.
He said Col. Husband would have known fellow astronauts were involved in the assessment of the potential damage. Mr. Dittemore's comment was the first time NASA has disclosed that astronauts were involved in the evaluation. The decision was made that the incident posed no risk to the Columbia's safe return.
"He knew that his people, his astronaut friends, were involved in the analysis," Mr. Dittemore said. "We also give him the opportunity to talk to the ground. If he doesn't think he has enough information, we would be glad to provide him anything he desired."
"Nothing was kept from them. They knew," Gen. Kostelnik said.
Despite the daily engineering reports evaluating the insulation's impact on heat-shield tiles in a particularly vulnerable spot under the left wing, there is no evidence that Col. Husband ever questioned the finding.
His last radio transmission acknowledged the NASA ground controller who didn't understand Col. Husband's reply to a warning that temperatures in his left wheel well were rising fast.
"Roger, uh, buh …"
From there, only static was heard, along with the steady voice of a Houston controller, at first confident that the silence was caused by normal electronic interference during the heat of re-entry.
"Columbia, Houston. Comm check," the controller said repeatedly. There was no further reply.
NASA officials rejected suggestions that ice reinforced the relatively fragile foam, adding weight that increased the mass when the insulation broke loose from the fuel tank at more than 1,200 miles per hour.
"I don't think it's ice. I don't think there's an embedded-ice question here," Mr. Dittemore said.
"Ice was not an issue on this launch on that day," Gen. Kostelnik said. In discussing the problem, however, he focused on the current weather and said there was no rain around launch day.
Gen. Kostelnik rejected new suggestions that a month of rain caused ice to build up within a particularly thick portion of fuel-tank insulating foam.
In another development yesterday, Mr. Dittemore rejected as "impossible" the claim by astronaut David M. Brown's brother that the crew was so concerned about the damaged left wing that astronauts took photos of it. The claim was relayed by Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, in a Senate floor speech Tuesday. Mr. Dittemore said the wing is not visible from the shuttle windows.

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