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NASA Panel Becoming More Independent - 2003-02-19

The panel investigating the space shuttle Columbia disaster is making itself more independent of the U.S. space agency, NASA, which appointed it. The board says it wants to find not only the immediate cause of Columbia's disintegration earlier this month, but also aims to find out possible contributing causes such as NASA management and safety practices.

The Columbia accident investigation board is taking steps to insulate itself from NASA oversight, aiming to conduct an independent probe into the shuttle disaster.

Members of the Democratic Party opposition in Congress have questioned the board's independence following its appointment by the head of NASA, Sean O'Keefe.

The board chairman, retired U.S. Navy Admiral Harold Gehman, says the panel is gradually replacing the NASA staff members with which it began, with employees from outside the space agency. Although it follows NASA's methods for analyzing the accident's cause, the admiral says the panel is developing its own road map and adding its own experts.

In addition, it is seeking opinions from any credible private specialist with a view on why Columbia disintegrated high over the southwestern United States during atmospheric re-entry on February 1.

'We will invite experts who are not associated with any U.S. government program," says Mr. Gehman. "That way we get input not by any process or not by any government agency."

The Gehman board is investigating everything that happened to the Columbia shuttle from the day it ended its previous mission last March to its recent break-up. It is also probing the major overhaul given to Columbia by its builder before last year's mission.

Board member James Halleck of the U.S. Department of Transportation says teams are looking into maintenance, materials, management practices, shuttle operations, the crew, and engineering and technological support. "The whole area is complex because there are so many different things and we can't just emphasize and look at one and only one area," he says. "So we're cutting across many, many different things and we have many, many probes going on at the time."

Admiral Gehman says his investigators will, of course, try to find the immediate cause of the disaster, but will go beyond that to assess underlying, contributing factors that led up to the cause. He says this could include budget issues, safety practices, and NASA's management philosophy and that of its contracting firms. He suggests that the entire U.S. human space flight program is being reviewed.

"We will attempt to put that in the context of our manned space program and in the context of NASA as we find it today," he says. " It is our goal as a board that no matter what we find here, the report that we write will be deep enough and rich enough that it will be the foundation for a good intellectual debate about what we do next."

Although the probe is multifaceted, the investigation board's leading theory is that something caused a defect or breach in the shuttle's left wing, which allowed superheated gases to penetrate it during re-entry and overheat the orbiter's left side beyond endurance.

At the shuttle launch site at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, 4,000 pieces of Columbia debris are in the process of identification and display in a big hangar, with another 10,000 on their way.

None of those pieces has been found further west than Fort Worth, Texas in the south central United States. But the investigation board reports that Columbia began breaking up as far west as California, confirming some eyewitness reports. The panel suggests those pieces may never be found because they were small and probably burned entering the atmosphere.