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NASA Investigative Panel Not Looking to Place Blame - 2003-02-12

The head of the space shuttle disaster investigation panel says it will conduct a deep, thorough, and independent search into what caused the loss of the Columbia more than a week ago.

Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Harold Gehman says the independent panel will act as a watchdog over U.S. space agency NASA's investigations. At the panel's first press conference Tuesday, he said if NASA decides to eliminate a possible cause, they'll have to explain to the panel why.

"If we are happy with that explanation, that'll be the end of it," he said. "If we think that requires independent verification, we'll go out and get independent verification of it. If we want it re-opened and we want more work done, then they will re-open it."

NASA set up the panel of 10 military and civilian experts last week. But Admiral Gehman says the panel will not be looking to place blame for the tragedy. "We want to find the causes of this, not the guilty parties," he says.

With the new panel on the case, there may be less public speculation from investigators over what caused the disaster. At press conferences last week, NASA officials had discussed whether insulating foam that hit the shuttle's left wing may have damaged heat-shielding tiles. But Admiral Gehman repeadedly declined to comment on any particular theory. He says the panel members have seen popular ideas lose favor before.

"Almost every one of us has had an experience where following the hottest lead and working on the hottest theory turned out to be completely wrong," he says. "And we went off and found out some completely different cause. So we're very careful not to fall in love with any particular scenario."

The head of the panel says his team and NASA will continue to release information as it becomes available. He says the first truckload of shuttle debris is on its way to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Investigators there will try to piece the Columbia back together as much as possible to try to determine what went wrong.

But the panel's Air Force chief of safety Ken Hess says we may never know exactly what happened. "Our charter is to try to find the cause," he says. "And to the extent that we can drill down and ask enough questions why, we're going to attempt to do that. But it is a probable outcome that we may not find the exact cause of this mishap."

Mr. Gehman says investigators are working to put all the pictures, video, and radar data from the shuttle's final minutes together into a single composite. He called the images from private citizens very helpful, and asked anyone with more to come forward.