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3 US Agencies Involved in Probe of <i>Columbia</i> Disaster

The head of the U.S. space agency NASA says the investigation of the cause of the Columbia space shuttle disaster will be thorough and completed as quickly as possible so America can begin sending people back into space. At least three government agencies and an independent panel of experts are involved in the probe.

Five of the seven crew members aboard the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle were with the Air Force or Navy. Those two military services, along with NASA, are conducting the investigation of radio transmissions between Columbia's crew to mission control in Houston, Texas.

An independent panel of investigators will also look into the disaster. The team will be headed by Admiral Harold Gehman, who chaired the official investigation into the October 2000 bombing of the destroyer U.S.S. Cole in the Gulf of Oman.

Investigators will analyze the debris and data from military, government, and commercial satellites for evidence that might tell them why the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered earth's atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.

In an interview on the television's Fox News Sunday, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said no possible cause is being ruled out. "We are leaving nothing to chance. We are looking at every piece of evidence. We are securing all the debris and assuring that we look at every possible angle of what could have caused this horrible accident," Mr. O'Keefe said.

The NASA chief vowed to find answers to the disaster so the shuttle program can be running again as soon as possible.

A major consideration is the three astronauts - two Americans and a Russian - who are aboard the International Space Station, a permanent scientific outpost in orbit. The three are scheduled to return to earth in March.

For the time being, NASA has placed a moratorium on shuttle flights, but Mr. O'Keefe is hopeful a space shuttle will be able to retrieve them. "We are certainly not ruling out any possibility, and we are preparing for being ready to launch whenever necessary, once we have found the correction," he said. The space station astronauts have enough supplies to last them until June if necessary. They are regularly re-supplied by Russian cargo craft, and have a Soyuz space capsule at the station for an emergency return to Earth.