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The Washington Post March 15, 2003

NASA Official Explains Rationale on Image Request

No 'Extraordinary Reason' Found for Photo of Columbia

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer

NASA's top space flight official said yesterday that he spurned an opportunity to request a high-priority photograph of the damaged space shuttle Columbia during the final days of its mission because he felt the agency had no "extraordinary reason" to request the diversion of the equipment -- described by others as spy satellites -- from their assigned military tasks.

William F. Readdy, a NASA associate administrator, confirmed in an interview with reporters that he gave comparatively low priority to his request for an image -- from an agency he declined to name. He said the request was made on a "not-to-interfere" basis, meaning the agency in question was not expected to alter its existing priorities to fulfill the request.

Readdy also said he chose to seek an image in hopes only that the pictures would help provide a "useful documentation" of the Columbia's damaged skin, not because he worried about the safety of its crew.

As a result, other sources said, the agency in question -- the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, an arm of the U.S. intelligence community -- deemed NASA's request less important than its tasks related to a potential war in Iraq, and did not try to take a picture of the shuttle's damaged skin before the Columbia's disastrous reentry on Feb. 1.

The shuttle disintegrated as it entered the Earth's atmosphere that day, and the seven crew members perished. A leading theory is that superheated air burned through the wing in an area where it had been damaged by debris that hit the shuttle during its launch on Jan. 16.

NASA made no public statement of concern about the safety of the shuttle during the flight. But since the disaster, the agency has disclosed e-mail traffic in which various engineers discussed their worries about the damage and called for photographs that could help them determine its gravity. One engineer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Alan R. Rocha, recommended in an e-mail to seven colleagues on Jan. 21 that the agency "beg" for such an image, according to a copy obtained yesterday.

Summarizing the results of a meeting attended by officials from several NASA divisions in Texas and its major contractors, Rocha said the participants "all agreed we will always have big uncertainties" in the analysis of possible damage "until we get definitive, better, clearer photos of the wing and body underside. Without better images, it will be very difficult even to bound the problem. . . . Their answers may have a wide spread, ranging from acceptable to not acceptable to horrible, and no way to reduce uncertainty."

Giving various landing options to mission flight directors "will be very difficult," Rocha said, unless "we petition [beg] for outside agency assistance."

He noted that such help had been provided "in the early 1980s when we had missing tile concerns." He also noted that if the damage proved serious, the crew could try to minimize the consequences, such as cooling the wing by keeping it in darkness before landing, and by altering the reentry flight pattern. His e-mail was first disclosed in yesterday's editions of the New York Times.

The anxieties that Rocha and other engineers expressed about the flight were not shared by more senior NASA officials, who relied on analyses of the possible debris damage done by a team from Boeing Co. One official at the Johnson Space Center, flight team manager Linda Ham, intervened to halt a move by engineers to request ground-based imagery of the shuttle by the Defense Department, according to NASA officials.

Readdy also told a colleague, who was acting as an intermediary to the unnamed surveillance agency, there was "no rationale . . . to support increasing the priority" of the request for space-based imagery.

The space assets in question "were not put in place to support the [civilian] space program," Readdy said. "These capabilities were put in place for other purposes. And for us to change priorities for those national capabilities is extraordinary.

"And we had to justify that there was an extraordinary reason to do so. We did not have that rationale. We would have, believe me, if we had thought for a moment that there was a problem, where requesting those capabilities would have helped, we would have done it."

Reading from testimony he gave on Feb. 3 to the board investigating the disaster, Readdy confirmed that the agency had offered to take the photographs if NASA requested support "on an emergency or high-priority basis." He said that after turning down this offer, the intermediary "reiterated that the other agency desired to do support on a not-to-interfere basis. . . . I told him to accept the offer."

Asked if it seemed odd that another agency of the U.S. government was more eager to photograph the shuttle during the flight than NASA was, Readdy said, "Yeah, quite frankly it did seem odd."

But he said officials in the other agency were unaware at the time that NASA flight managers had already concluded -- on the 12th day of the flight -- that the damage posed no risk to the crew.

John Pike, a space analyst at Globalsecurity.org, said Readdy's decision suggested that "NASA has an inferiority complex relative to the military space agencies. . . . Senior management did not want to annoy. They felt that NASA did not have the institutional clout to ask national security agencies for help" except under truly extraordinary circumstances.


Copyright 2003, The Washington Post Company