- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Although former NASA flight director Wayne Hale had been planning to spend March 6 overseeing his first launch as the top shuttle manager at the Kennedy Space Center, instead, Hale — as everyone else with space shuttle-related jobs in the space agency — is spending the day doing what he can to support the investigation into the Columbia accident and maintaining the remaining three orbiters until they are cleared to return to flight.

Hale, who transferred to Florida from Houston, started his new job Feb. 1, the same day Columbia's 16-day research mission ended in tragedy.

A veteran flight director tapped most often to handle the critical shuttle launch and landing, Hale has been referred to, in a barrage of e-mail messages released in the wake of the accident, as the manager requesting telescopic imagery of Columbia in orbit to possibly verify engineering analysis that the shuttle's left wing was not dangerously damaged by a piece of falling debris during launch.

The e-mail includes a widely circulated exchange of possible "bad day" scenarios if the analysis was incorrect and the wing was more heavily damaged than suspected.

An independent board investigating the accident suspects hot plasma generated by the shuttle's supersonic flight through the atmosphere somehow got inside the left wing through a structural breach, dooming the ship and its seven astronauts.

Hale, who has not yet been interviewed by investigators, declined to discuss his role in the Columbia e-mail exchange until after he speaks to the board. However he staunchly defended the flight directors, many of whom he trained, saying they are taught to play devil's advocate.

"One of the things that we train flight controllers to do is to be very tough, to look at all the decisions that are being made, challenge them if they are inappropriate … or inaccurate from an engineering standpoint," Hale told United Press International in an interview. "And then (to) be prepared to deal with whatever might happen, in particular if the decision was a wrong one. "

One e-mail depicted with chilling accuracy the chain of events that match the demise of Columbia.

"The only defense I can give," added Hale, "(is that) flight controllers, if they had really thought it was an issue, would not have let it rest."

Hale declined to speak specifically about his request to use Air Force telescopes to take pictures of Columbia's wing. Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore has said ground-based images would not have been clear enough to see damage and that even if the tile damage assessment was incorrect, there was nothing that could have been done to repair the tiles in orbit or change the re-entry procedures to alleviate heat and stress on the wing.

Hale, evidently, feels differently.

"If I thought, in my old job as flight director, that there was something wrong that I needed to have information on, I would have been — and I know all the rest of the folks in the flight directors office would tell you the same thing — I would have been front and center to the highest manager that I could to hold off to get them to listen to me."

He also said it would not have been an exercise in futility.

"You always have to think about what you'd do with the information," he said.

In the e-mail messages, Hale's request was shot down before any images of Columbia were taken.

"There was never a formal request made (from Mission Control)," wrote NASA flight director Steve Stich in an e-mail to colleague John Shannon three days before the Columbia disaster. "I told them (the Air Force) that we did not require the data on this mission and that they could turn off their system which was in high gear to get the data. In hindsight I probably should have let them go since they had worked it very hard … and they may not respond as well next time since we "cried wolf on STS-107 (the Columbia mission.)"

Hale said he had not yet been contacted by the accident investigation board to explain his request for the imagery.

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