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Space Shuttle Columbia Investigators Speak Out - 2003-05-15

The head of the investigation into the Columbia space shuttle disaster told a Senate panel Wednesday the U.S. space agency, NASA, should have tried to obtain satellite images of possible damage to the shuttle’s left wing. The shuttle broke up in pieces last February killing all seven of its crewmembers. Tony Riggs has this report.

At the Congressional hearing, retired admiral Harold Gehman, chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigating Board, criticized NASA’S decision not to take satellite images of the shuttle Columbia right after launch.

“There were a number of bureaucratic and administrative missed signals here. There was no one person responsible, there are a whole lot of people responsible.”

Mr. Gehman said the satellite pictures might not have revealed what brought down the shuttle but that without these pictures investigators will never know. He added the orbiter could have remained in space for days longer, if necessary, while engineers looked for a solution.

After a 3-month investigation the board has theorized the shuttle damage during lift-off could have allowed super-heated air to get inside the wing during re-entry to Earth, thus causing its destruction. But the board has not been able to confirm the damage was caused by debris during lift-off.

NASA’S administrator, Sean O’Keefe, called the decision by shuttle managers not to seek the satellite images “infuriating”.

“It was a judgment call, clearly the wrong judgment.”

Mr. O’Keefe said his agency will establish responsibility for decisions that affected the Columbia accident.

The investigative board has already recommended that satellite images be taken of every shuttle while it is in orbit. Mr. Gehman said he does not see any reason why the rest of the shuttle fleet could not be returned to flight one day. He said the board will issue a final report on the investigation in June.