- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

The head of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident investigation yesterday said an inquiry has begun to determine whether NASA could have done anything to prevent the fiery breakup, and he criticized the space agency for a series of bad decisions while the shuttle was in orbit.

“We haven’t found a magic fix, but it’s inconceivable that we would come up with an answer that we could do nothing. … Doing nothing is obviously the wrong answer,” retired Adm.Harold W. Gehman, chairman of the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing.

The results of the inquiry could further call into question decision making at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration during Columbia’s 16-day orbit.

“It just seems to me there’s no question the decision-making process has to be altered. It has to change before any, before the next launch,” said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican.

Mr. Gehman said one finding so far indicates Columbia could have stayed in orbit at least two more days, perhaps longer, giving NASA time to weigh options to return it safely.

Columbia carried two spacesuits in which astronauts might have examined an exterior breach. It wasn’t until after Columbia disintegrated Feb. 1 that outgoing shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore ordered engineers to determine whether astronauts can inspect and repair thermal-protection tiles during future missions.

NASA officialsdeny they did nothing to save Columbia — and they say they had no reason to believe the foam strike after launch created a “safety of flight” concern. But the space agency did fail to get photographs from spy satellites operated by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

“It was a judgment call, and it was the wrong judgment,” NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe told lawmakers.

Accident investigators believe foam insulation came loose from Columbia’s fuel tank 82 seconds after launch and hit the shuttle’s left wing, and the shuttle burned up when searing gas penetrated the hole during re-entry. All seven astronauts aboard Columbia died.

In March, NASA reached agreement with the mapping agency to routinely photograph all shuttle flights. Mr. Gehman said it is not clear whether satellite images would have helped NASA see the hole in Columbia, but the decision not to have photos taken is one of the many errors the agency made.

“There were a number of bureaucratic missed signals,” he said. “We’re a little disappointed in how this turned out.”

NASA has a poorly organized structure that doesn’t give shuttle program personnel who assess safety issues enough independence or authority, Mr. Gehman said.

“This is the flaw in the system,” he said. “We find that the safety engineer, on paper, is perfect. But you dig a little deeper and you don’t find any ‘there’ there. We’re trying to find a way to fix it and fix it right.”

Greater autonomy for engineers could help NASA overcome the problem, he said.

While he was critical of the space agency, Mr. Gehman indicated he isn’t prepared to assign blame and doesn’t see that as the function of accident investigators. Instead, he wants to recommend how NASA can improve the decision-making process.

But senators indicated they are looking to place blame.

“I think the people who are responsible will be held responsible once the investigation is complete,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Commerce panel.

Senators said they expect to reach agreement with the 13-member investigation board on access to testimony from witnesses.

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