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The Pensacola News Journal March 15, 2003

NASA declined spy agency's space photos of Columbia

Administrators already had decided shuttle was OK when offer was made

By Larry Wheeler
News Journal correspondent

WASHINGTON - A top NASA official disclosed Friday he turned down an offer from a government spy agency to use a top secret satellite to photograph suspected damage to the shuttle Columbia while it was still in orbit.

The statements by William Readdy, a veteran shuttle pilot who is now associate administrator for space flight, mark the first public acknowledgement by a NASA official that discussions of whether to use spy satellites or high-powered military telescopes to capture an image of suspected shuttle damage reached the top echelons of the space agency.

Mid-level NASA engineers had been pursuing the Pentagon's help in imaging Columbia in orbit even before Readdy was approached about the possibility a government intelligence agency could use a spy satellite to take close-up photographs of the shuttle.

The engineers were surprised and frustrated with the decision not to aggressively pursue the Pentagon's assistance, Gannett News Service has learned.

Despite NASA's insistence that such an effort would have been fruitless, at least one military space expert says powerful U.S. photo reconnaissance satellites might have been able to spot obvious damage.

Readdy said a NASA colleague relayed the offer from an intelligence agency to photograph the shuttle while it was still in orbit. By then, shuttle program engineers had concluded that damage caused at launch when debris broke off the external fuel tank and struck the orbiter's left wing did not pose a safety risk.

"This offer was broached after the determination was made there was no safety of flight issue," Readdy said.

Readdy explained that accepting the offer would have required him to ask the spy agency for "emergency" assistance.

"There is an impression these (spy satellite) capabilities are available any time you want them," Readdy said. "These capabilities were not put in place to support the space program. For us to (ask) to change the capability is extraordinary and we have to justify it."

He said he did accept the agency's offer to photograph the shuttle without diverting the agency's satellite from its primary national security mission. Readdy said he thought the images might provide useful information for later analysis. But he indicated no image was obtained.

Readdy limited his comments in order to avoid compromising government restrictions concerning intelligence-gathering sources and methods.

He would not identify the agency in question, but it is likely the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the super-secret spy agency that provides intelligence data to the Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency and other federal agencies.

A spokeswoman for the reconnaissance agency declined to comment.

Readdy also revealed he gave a detailed account of his discussion - written on Feb. 3, two days after Columbia broke apart - to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

It is an important piece of the mosaic the independent investigation board is assembling as it attempts to identify the reasons the orbiter and its crew of seven astronauts were lost on Feb. 1.

Columbia accident investigators are apparently ready to find fault with how NASA and the Department of Defense handled informal requests for high-tech imagery of the $2 billion shuttle during its two-week stay in orbit.

Retired Adm. Hal Gehman, chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, indicated members on the panel already are convinced there was a serious breakdown in communications between NASA and the nation's intelligence-gathering community.

Some members of Congress are also upset that an opportunity was missed.

"What all this may indicate is that somebody made a bad decision," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a senior Republican on the House Science Committee and chairman of the House Aeronautics and Space Subcommittee. "I will be looking very closely at this when the Gehman report comes out to see whether the experts tell me whether or not one or more individuals made indefensible decisions."

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe defended Readdy and space agency officials Friday.

He said managers made the best decisions they could with the information at hand at the time.

"When the full story is out, we're going to look at how we hold ourselves accountable and that accountability starts with me," O'Keefe said.

National reconnaissance satellites are powerful enough that they could have photographed any obvious damage to the shuttle's left wing, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit defense and space public policy institute in Washington.

"The resolution of these satellites is a few inches," he said. "If there was a single tile that has had all the black gouged off and we're just looking at the white substrate, there is a chance you would see that. And if we're talking about a whole bunch of tiles that have been gouged out, you definitely would see that."

Gehman said NASA officials had "outdated information" on the capabilities of Defense Department telescopes and satellites. The Defense Department, meanwhile, "didn't do anything to help them," he added.

"We could tell NASA to get their act together with DOD on taking pictures," Gehman said. "Obviously both sides were at fault, in our opinion."

Gannett News Service staff writer Todd Halvorson also contributed to this report.


Copyright 2003, The Pensacola News Journal