NASA chief Sean O’Keefe blocked his agency yesterday from again altering its stance about what led to the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion and announced that all further declarations on the cause must come from the new independent investigating committee.
The panel “will reach conclusions and the conclusions will come from them, and only from them,” said Mr. O’Keefe, who explained that comments by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration should be taken solely as opinion or suggestions. “Any view we express in this regard does not close out any theory, any conclusion. … That board’s findings are what we will be guided by.”
While NASA scientists continued to seek the cause of the explosion, a service was held at the National Cathedral for the seven astronauts killed Saturday when Columbia, on its 28th mission, disintegrated as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere 16 minutes before scheduled landing.
Another service has been scheduled this morning for workers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida where Columbia was launched Jan. 16 and where its wreckage will be reassembled by investigators.
At Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, mortuary scientists worked to complete positive DNA identification of the remains of NASA astronauts Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.
Mr. O’Keefe’s statement on the inquiry came a day after shuttle program manager Ron D. Dittemore discounted assertions that a piece of foam insulation which struck Columbia’s wing shortly after launch was the likely cause of the disaster. That theory made no sense, Mr. Dittemore said, and the cause must be “something else that we don’t know about yet.”
“Let me emphasize again that we have not ruled out any probable cause,” he said yesterday in a Houston briefing moments after Mr. O’Keefe’s announcement.
Mr. O’Keefe’s unscheduled appearance in Washington followed “a spirited exchange” with staff and members of the House and Senate committees that will investigate the explosion, and a discussion with the investigative panel’s chairman, retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr.
Adm. Gehman arrived with commission members at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the group will be based indefinitely.
Mr. O’Keefe said he will testify Wednesday before a joint meeting of the House Science Committee and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
The House and Senate investigators told The Washington Times yesterday that NASA was correct to first examine its prime theory, that damage to Columbia’s heat shield from breakaway insulation destroyed the spacecraft, then search for the real “root cause.”
The announcement Wednesday by NASA officials that the agency has discounted its original theory that insulating foam damaged thermal tiles because “there’s got to be another reason” coincided with the summons for Mr. O’Keefe to testify next week.
“We’re not expecting them to have a theory by next Wednesday morning. We’d be pretty skeptical if they had a theory by then,” House Science Committee Chief of Staff David Goldston said of the hearing.
“They’ve gone back as they should have to look at the [foam-insulation theory] first and reassure themselves that didn’t seem to be the most likely cause. Now they’ll continue on through what they call their fault tree,” Mr. Goldston said in an interview.
NASA’s engineering specialists, meanwhile, began working backward from the moment communication was lost with Columbia, in hopes of finding a “missing link,” the tiniest detail to explain the disaster while “this trail remains warm,” Mr. O’Keefe said.
Now “every possible cause, no matter how remote,” as Mr. Dittemore put it, will be considered from a blowout of the left landing-gear tire that might have damaged the shuttle to a one-in-a-million hit by a meteorite.
Workers scoured beaches in Florida that Columbia flew over during the launch, searching for shuttle parts that may have fallen then and studying ocean currents to track debris that might be afloat.
Some specialists are not as convinced as NASA that the flying foam insulation is blameless.
Former NASA controller James Oberg believes that impact, 81 seconds after liftoff, will figure in the solution even if it was not the sole cause of the explosion.
“These kinds of catastrophes are hardly ever the cause of a single stupid mistake or oversight, but are the multiplication of several factors,” Mr. Oberg said.
An aide to the Senate committee, chaired by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said that the committee does not intend to investigate independently in the manner that House committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican, indicated his panel will undertake.
Mr. Boehlert has called for “the most complete and thorough investigation possible in search of all the facts.”
While more than 12,000 pieces of the 89-ton spacecraft have been identified, including two possible wing sections, heavy rains in Texas yesterday slowed collection of evidence, and there were fears the downpour could degrade or bury debris from Columbia’s 2 million parts.
“Clearly, we’re concerned that the debris be recovered quickly and in as undamaged a condition as possible, and obviously rain will impede that process in some of the thickly wooded and swampy terrain,” said John Ira Petty, a NASA spokesman in Houston.