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O'Keefe rejects idea that nothing could have saved Columbia



Submitted by Arthur - With permission of the Houston Chronicle

Feb. 28, 2003, 12:56PM

O'Keefe rejects idea that nothing could have saved Columbia

WASHINGTON -- NASA's top administrator, Sean O'Keefe, said today he
"completely rejects the proposition" that nothing could have been done in
orbit to help Columbia if engineers had known the space shuttle was in
trouble. 

"To suggest that we would have done nothing is fallacious," O'Keefe said
in a meeting with reporters. "If there had been a clear indication (of
problems) there would have been no end to the efforts." 

O'Keefe was responding to a question which cited statements by Shuttle
program director Ron Dittemore. 

Those statements said in effect that nothing could have been done to help
Columbia and its seven-person crew if Mission Control had known for sure
that the space shuttle had experienced damage to its thermal protection
tiles. 

One theory of the cause of the accident is that tiles damaged during
launch allowed superheated gases to penetrate the hollow wing and destroy
its structure. 

"I completely reject the proposition that nothing could have been done,"
O'Keefe said. 

O'Keefe's remarks Friday directly contradicted earlier statements by
Dittemore, who said "there's nothing that we can do about tile damage
once we get to orbit." 

"We can't minimize the heating to the point that it would somehow not
require a tile," Dittemore said at a news conference on Feb. 1, the day
of the tragedy. "And so once you get to orbit, you're there, and you have
your tile insulation, and that's all you have for protection on the way
home from the extreme thermal heat heating during re-entry," he said. 

But O'Keefe said Friday: "I reject the premise that there was nothing
that could have been done on orbit." 

The administrator cited the response of Mission Control engineers to the
Apollo 13 accident. Engineers devised a way for the three Apollo
astronauts to return safely to Earth after an oxygen tank exploded while
the spacecraft was on its way to the moon. 

O'Keefe, however, admitted that he knew of no formal, written contingency
plan that would have covered the case of Columbia, where a space shuttle
was in orbit was suspected to have damaged thermal protection tiles. 

He said efforts to investigate the tiles using ground-based Department of
Defense cameras was rejected because past efforts by the cameras had not
produced useful images. 

Columbia broke up during the final minutes of re-entry, killing all seven
of the astronauts on board. 

Meanwhile, retired Adm. Harold Gehman, head of the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board, sent a letter to NASA expressing concern that some
NASA employees were participating too closely in the independent
investigation, according to board spokesperson Laura Brown. 

The board said it would release the full contents of the letter later on
Friday. 

Some members of Congress have expressed concern about the independence of
the investigation board and have called for a Presidential commission,
following the pattern set by President Reagan in the investigation of the
Challenger accident in 1986. 

O'Keefe, however, continues to insist that the board is completely
independent and that NASA is cooperating fully. 

Some Republican lawmakers have quoted Gehman as saying that the board is
"completely independent 

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