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The Orlando Sentinel March 1, 2003

NASA MIGHT HAVE TRIED HEROIC RESCUE, O'KEEFE SAYS;
IF COLUMBIA HAD A CLEAR PROBLEM, HE SAID, NO EFFORT WOULD HAVE BEEN SPARED.

By Sean Mussenden, Sentinel Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Flight engineers might have tried a heroic, Apollo 13-style fix for shuttle Columbia had it shown obvious signs of trouble before its deadly re-entry, NASA's chief said Friday.

"Given the history of this agency, there is positively nothing that would have been spared in our efforts to try and find out what to do to avoid a catastrophe," agency Administrator Sean O'Keefe said during a roundtable discussion with reporters.

O'Keefe's contention marked an apparent shift in position for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

On Feb. 1 -- the day Columbia broke up over Texas -- space-shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore told reporters that even if damage to the spacecraft's critical thermal-protection armor was extensive, engineers would have been helpless to correct it.

"There's nothing we can do about [thermal-protection] tile damage once we get to orbit," Dittemore said, a sentiment he repeated six times that day.

"With all due respect to Ron, he's not speaking for the agency in this regard, OK," O'Keefe said. "I fundamentally, absolutely reject the proposition that there was nothing that could have been done on orbit."

A NASA spokeswoman at Houston's Johnson Space Center said Dittemore was not available for comment Friday.

Investigators think insulating foam shed by Columbia's external fuel tank struck the craft's left wing during launch. The debris could have damaged the shuttle's thermal protection system, ultimately dooming the ship during re-entry. An analysis conducted while Columbia orbited Earth predicted the damage was not bad enough to destroy the shuttle, though some agency engineers speculated otherwise in widespread e-mails.

O'Keefe said Friday that if flight controllers had thought the tile problem -- or some other theoretical cause of the accident -- was more serious, the agency would have thrown all its intellectual might behind finding a way to bring the shuttle home safely, as it did during the Apollo 13 moon mission.

Celebrated in a Hollywood blockbuster of the same name, fast-thinking Mission Control engineers brought three astronauts home safely after an onboard explosion during the 1970 mission.

O'Keefe said he did not know of any existing contingency plans for dealing with foam damage to tiles, even though the problem has plagued the shuttle program from its earliest days. He offered no specifics as to how engineers would have worked through tile-damage problems in space, something Dittemore did in explaining why such a rescue would not have been possible.

Dittemore cautioned Feb. 1 that the tile-damage theory was just one of several being considered and not a "smoking gun." But if it turned out that the tiles were to blame, Columbia was already doomed, he said.

A trip to the international space station for potential repairs was not possible. If tiles had been damaged, changing the trajectory on re-entry to mitigate heating on the left wing would not have worked. Astronauts do not have the capability to do a spacewalk to look for broken tiles in orbit, much less fix them.

"What are you going to use, duct tape?" asked John Pike, a space-policy analyst and NASA observer. "There's no tile-repair kit on the [shuttle]." NASA considered such a kit more than two decades ago but ultimately decided such repairs would be too difficult in space, a stance the agency now is reconsidering.

Pike and others agreed with Dittemore's assessment that nothing could have been done to save the ship if the tiles were the problem.

But, he said, until the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board determines the exact cause of the breakup, no one will know for sure whether engineers knew of the problem -- and could have fixed it.

O'Keefe said NASA's can-do spirit would have given the astronauts a fighting chance, if only the cause of the accident had been apparent.

"If there would have been any indication . . . not 'what if' scenarios, I'm talking indications, a clear indication that says, 'Here is apparent damage or something that is causing an operational deficiency,' there would have been no end to the efforts to try to figure out" a solution, he said.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: Another view. Sean O'Keefe broke with earlier statements that NASA was helpless to prevent the disaster.


Copyright 2003, Sentinel Communications Co.