- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., March 10 (UPI) — The NASA engineer who sent e-mail messages in January that eerily foresaw Columbia's demise said Monday the hypothetical discussions achieved their purpose and there was no reason for the discussion to reach top-level management.

"It went exactly as I intended it," senior research Robert Daugherty, with NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, said in a teleconference with reporters. "I thought my e-mails were absolutely taken seriously."

As shuttle Columbia's 16-day research mission was drawing to a close, Daugherty, an expert on the shuttle's tires and landing gear, was asked by a colleague at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to analyze possible effects of heat damage to the landing gear. The request followed a report that the shuttle's wing, which was hit by falling external tank insulation at launch, would not be a concern during re-entry and landing.

The shuttle was destroyed as it soared 203,000 feet over Texas on Feb. 1, heading toward its home field landing strip at the Kennedy Space Center. Seven astronauts died in the accident.

What caused the disaster is under investigation, but preliminary findings indicate a breach in the shuttle's left wing allowed hot plasma to shoot inside the structure during atmospheric re-entry, dooming the ship and its crew.

Daugherty had warned of a disaster in the making, but said he fully expected the shuttle to land in Florida and was anxious to know the extent of damage to the shuttle's wing, if any, from the debris hit during launch.

He acknowledged, however, that a week of e-mails depicting doomsday scenarios had made him uneasy, as he headed into his office on Saturday, Feb. 1 to watch the landing.

"By all accounts, there was some ambiguity to this whole thing," Daugherty said. "We were unsure how much damage there was to the vehicle (from the insulation impact at launch). But I certainly believed everything was going to be perfectly fine."

Managers did not pass along Daugherty's analysis to the head of NASA's space flight programs or to the crew, a decision that the engineer and his boss say was correct.

"The sleepless nights aren't because we didn't do enough," Daugherty said.

The purpose of the "what-if" scenarios was to alert mission managers so they could be prepared with what Daugherty terms "Plan Bs" in case of trouble during landing.

"The intended purpose of the e-mail was resolved," he said. "The guys in Mission Operations did have a plan to handle landing issues. I think they had resolved it. They did their job."

Daugherty added: "Honestly, I was very surprised by the attention my writing received. I view my involvement as a small sideline focused on landing issues."

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