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NASA engineers discussed the risk to the shuttle during Columbia's last five days

Demand for the removal of senior NASA officials from the investigation of the "Columbia" disaster

Before Columbia broke up, experts debated for five days about the risks to the shuttle, from a telephone inquiry about the wheels to remarkably accurate fears focused on the left wing.
Towards the end, the engineers even identified with a fairly high degree of accuracy which sensors might cease to function in sequence when the shuttle was exposed to high temperatures.

Dozens of pages of internal e-mails and other documents collected from the February 1 disaster provide a glimpse into the inner workings of the space agency. They also show that advanced discussions that for some reason came to the foresight in a strange light of the destruction of Colombia. Until then, William Anderson, a NASA subcontractor wondered in an email: "Why are we talking about this the day before the landing and not the day after the launch?"
The documents, most of which cover five critical days in late January, also suggest a lack of coordination along several wings of the agency during the Columbia flight.

The engineers at the Boeing company, also a subcontractor of NASA, assured the chief inspector that "there is no fear of a fire during the return" due to the increase in temperature, because of the damage that happened to the tiles from the foam that hit them during the launch. A few days later, two NASA engineers said that the crack could appear if the insulation tiles were damaged in the landing gear door area. One of the engineers, John Cowell, feared a "false sense of security" when NASA said all risks had been considered.
Engineer Carly Campbell described the need for a reconnaissance telescope to look for possible cracks in Columbia's insulation tiles, four days after others within NASA dismissed such a request. At the same time, senior agency officials also told the Defense Department that the shuttle was in "excellent condition" and that the fragments that fell on it during launch were not considered a serious problem.
Shuttle program manager Ronald Ditmore said the day Columbia burned that there was no way to fix the broken tiles on the runway. But just days before the disaster, engineer Robert Doherty suggested sending one of Columbia's astronauts out even on a makeshift rope to locate the damage. On Friday, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe recalled saying "I reject the claim as if nothing could be done."

NASA officials said they were not aware of the argument between their engineers until a week after February 1. They came back and claimed that their commitment to the shuttle and the seven crew members was considered good. They said that none of those engineers or others raised a red flag and claimed that the ferry was almost certainly lost. They discussed these questions and satisfied themselves that solutions would surely be found and decided that there was a risk to the flight but it was not within their authority or subject to their judgment," O'Keefe said in his congressional testimony. He said that the team investigating the disaster may decide otherwise.
However, there are still questions as to whether NASA's senior managers have adequately looked into the concerns. William Reedy, senior in the field of manned flights at NASA, said last week that he would have alerted the shuttle managers if he had known about the concerns.
And in the midst of this, a dispute broke out this weekend between the head of the independent investigative committee, which investigates the crash of the space shuttle "Columbia", and the management of the American space agency. The head of the investigative committee, retired Admiral Harold Gaiman, addressed a letter to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, asking him to remove several senior NASA employees from the investigative committee, claiming that the investigation had reached a stage where there could be a conflict of interest between the employees being members of the committee, and The role they played in the events leading up to the ferry crash about a month ago.

"We believe that for the benefit of those senior officials, for the benefit of NASA and for the benefit of the effectiveness of the investigation, it is better to replace those people, with other experts with knowledge on the subject," Gaiman wrote to O'Keefe last week. He explained that after the end of the initial information gathering phase and the transition to the analysis and conclusions phase, there is no more room to share with the committee representatives of NASA, who may be affected by the conclusions of the investigation.

However, the director of NASA, O'Keeffe, firmly rejected Gaiman's demand. In his answer to the head of the investigation team, O'Keeffe claimed that the replacement of NASA managers who are members of the committee, would be interpreted as a prior determination that these executives had a share of the responsibility for the shuttle crash and therefore they would suffer unjustified harm. Instead, O'Keeffe suggested adding outside experts who are not NASA employees to the committee.

Congress, which is conducting a parallel investigation into the events, has criticized O'Keefe's behavior. The member of Congress, Antony Wiener from New York, claimed that the actions of the NASA administrator damage the credibility of the Law Commission in the eyes of the American public.

The lawsuit to remove senior NASA officials from the investigative committee focuses mainly on Ron Ditmore, the head of the space agency's shuttle project and a senior member of the committee. Two weeks ago it was announced that Ditmore personally requested to receive copies of the e-mail correspondence conducted by engineers at NASA, regarding the damage to the wing. The request raised suspicions that Ditmore is trying to influence the transfer of information to the committee, which is examining, among other things, his own performance.

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