- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said yesterday the agency may never be able to pin the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia to a single cause.
"We're six weeks into this, and there's not going to be an 'a-ha,'" Mr. O'Keefe said while speaking to the NASA Advisory Council at Stennis Space Flight Center in Mississippi.
The independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board also has expressed caution that the inquiry may not yield clear answers about the Feb. 1 breakup on re-entry that killed seven astronauts.
"I don't think we're ever going to be able to say absolutely 100 percent this is what it was, or zero percent this is what it was. We're going to be looking at … the preponderance of evidence," James Hallock, a member of the board and head of the Transportation Department's aviation safety division, said Tuesday.
Investigators know that something possibly a chunk of foam insulation from Columbia's external fuel tank that was seen striking the orbiter caused a breach in the shuttle's left wing and allowed superheated gases to penetrate the shuttle. But they still are working to determine just how such an impact and breach could have led to the catastrophic loss of the orbiter.
They also are trying to determine the role other factors may have had, from the handling of e-mails written by NASA engineers who warned of potential danger to a decision not to ask the Defense Department to use a high-resolution camera on a spy satellite to photograph damage to Columbia.
Mr. O'Keefe has maintained that a range of factors may have played a role in the shuttle's destruction. The explosion could have been a result of a failure of equipment, a failure in processes and procedures during flight, or bad judgment calls, he said.
"I bet it's going to be a combination of all three," Mr. O'Keefe told the advisory council, a 28-member group of private-sector professionals, academics and federal government officials that advises the space agency on policy issues.
Mr. O'Keefe also said he believes NASA will return to flight because he expects the investigation to reveal enough about the destruction of Columbia to let shuttles fly again safely. NASA hopes to fly a shuttle as soon as next fall, according to a memo written last week by William Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight.
Retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman, the head of the accident-investigation board, said this week investigators will issue "interim recommendations" to NASA outlining changes the agency must make before resuming shuttle flight. The interim findings, which could be released within a week, are intended to help NASA improve operations.
"There are a couple of [recommendations] that are percolating up to where we think they are benign enough, obvious enough that we don't need any further research," he said. "We're as anxious as everybody else is to get everything on the table so they can make the [return to flight] as quickly as they can."

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