- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

NASA officials yesterday continued to defend their handling of e-mails written by their own engineers who warned of potential catastrophic damage to the Space Shuttle Columbia during re-entry.
"It seems pretty clear right now there isn't anything I've seen or anyone else has hinted at that would suggest malice, complacence or indifference. If anything, this appears to be the spirited exchange that we want to encourage," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told reporters at the agency's headquarters.
Meanwhile, investigators said in Houston that molten aluminum was found on Columbia's thermal tiles and inside the leading edge of the left wing. The shuttle exploded on re-entry Feb. 1, killing the seven astronauts aboard.
Roger Tetrault, a member of the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said he suspects the melting occurred because hot gases penetrated the shuttle and because of heat caused by re-entry.
Mr. Tetrault also said both tires from the left main landing gear are flat with torn fabric, and the tires could have been ruptured in the final seconds of the orbiter's flight.
He added that damage to the tires also could have been caused by hot gases. Heat may have set off the small explosives that are used to free the landing gear if it gets stuck before touchdown, he said, and the tires may have been pulled apart by the heat of re-entry.
Mr. Tetrault would not speculate on whether the breach occurred at the wing's leading edge or the wheel well, but said both options were "equally alive."
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been sensitive to the perception that it ignored internal warnings about damage to Columbia, and it has said the e-mails were never seen by senior mission controllers.
The agency has released dozens of pages of e-mails since Feb. 21 written by several engineers. The electronic messages illustrate how engineers were busy considering the extent of damage to the orbiter from foam insulation that shed from an external fuel tank during Columbia's liftoff.
NASA engineer Robert Daugherty, who works at the agency's Langley research facility in Hampton, Va., warned that a breach in Columbia's left wing could let hot gas seep into the orbiter and prevent the wheel well from opening during landing or cause tires to explode.
Mr. O'Keefe has acknowledged he saw the e-mails Wednesday, but he told the House Science Committee last week he is confident the engineers' concerns reached the appropriate NASA officials.
NASA will not determine whether the agency handled the e-mails properly, or if they should have been sent to senior mission controllers, until after investigators finish their inquiry of the shuttle disaster, Mr. O'Keefe said. That is because it is still not clear why the orbiter exploded during its descent.
Mr. O'Keefe said yesterday that e-mails written by Mr. Daugherty merely represent his judgment about what may have happened to Columbia.
He also indicated some of the e-mails the agency has released may have been mischaracterized and taken out of context because they represent only a fraction of the e-mails written on the subject.
He said last week he visited the Langley research center, where an engineer there told him "it's not like we were waving red flags."
But e-mails written by Mr. Daugherty illustrate his exasperation.
"Any more activity on the tile damage or are people just relegated to crossing their fingers and hoping for the best?" he wrote Jan. 28.
Mr. Daugherty also admitted two days later in another e-mail that "I am admittedly erring way on the side of absolute worst-case scenarios and I don't really believe things are as bad as I'm getting ready to make them out. But I certainly believe that not to be ready for a gut-wrenching decision … is irresponsible."

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