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Shuttle Disaster

Inquiry will find cause, chief pledges

©Associated Press

February 12, 2003

SPACE CENTER, Houston -- The head of the space shuttle inquiry said Tuesday he has the best investigators in the country to figure out what caused the Columbia crash and is confident the mystery will be solved. But one of those experts cautioned the scope of the disaster is the biggest any of them has ever seen.

"Looking at the complexity of this, it is huge. It is one of the biggest debris fields that I think any of us have ever seen," said Navy Rear Adm. Stephen Turcotte, who as commander of the Naval Safety Center is responsible for investigating every aviation accident in the Navy and Marine Corps.

Thousands of pieces of debris have been found in a 500-mile area across Louisiana and Texas. The search is expected to take at least several more weeks.

The head of the investigation board, retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., said the panel was still collecting data and hasn't ruled out any potential cause. He said no debris has been recovered west of Fort Worth, Texas.

"We don't have proof, but we have reason to believe that we should keep looking west of Fort Worth," Gehman said in the board's first full news conference since taking over the investigation from NASA last week. He said NASA is tapping into military and weather radar to pinpoint wreckage.

Debris found west of Fort Worth could be extremely important because it would help investigators understand how and when Columbia started breaking apart as it aimed for a Florida touchdown the morning of Feb 1. All seven astronauts aboard were killed when Columbia broke apart at an altitude of more than 200,000 feet.

NASA released tapes of the final conversations between Mission Control in Houston and the shuttle crew. The tapes include the final communication from spacecraft commander Rick Husband, who is abruptly cut off, and the calm demeanor of the flight controller as he slowly realizes the shuttle is in trouble.

Separately, NASA said officials from Johnson Space Center called experts at its Langley research facility in Hampton, Va., on Jan. 27 to ask what might happen if the shuttle's tires were not inflated during a landing attempt.

NASA spokesman Keith Henry said the question was based on assumptions that damage to the shuttle's thermal protection system would cause the tires to deflate. The Langley experts said such a failure could cause broad damage to the shuttle's tires.

The evidence released so far suggests Columbia's troubles began in the left wing. That is where a chunk of foam insulation struck 81 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 16, and that is where temperatures started surging and sensors began failing in the final eight minutes of flight. Part of the left wing has been found.

Before the news conference, all nine members of the board crowded onto a pair of shuttle simulators to see what astronauts experience when they re-enter Earth's atmosphere. One was "flown" by John Young, a moonwalker who commanded Columbia on the first shuttle flight in 1981.

Gehman said the simulator experience, and the board's earlier visit to the debris collection site, helps them better understand the magnitude of the accident.

Also Tuesday, two trucks full of debris left Barksdale Air Force Base, La., for Florida's Kennedy Space Center, the first of several shipments. The search for debris is continuing in Texas but has all but ended in Louisiana.

Federal and state officials plan to take over the search today.

NASA official: No problems were reported

WASHINGTON -- NASA's top official plans to tell Congress that Columbia exhibited no problems during its 16-day mission that suggested the shuttle crew's lives were threatened, according to a draft of his prepared testimony.

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, scheduled to testify today before a joint hearing, also will offer assurances that investigators will discover the cause of the accident and that a review board will operate without interference from NASA insiders. A draft of his prepared remarks was obtained Tuesday by the Associated Press.

O'Keefe did not speculate about what might have caused Columbia to disintegrate over Texas.

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