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New York Sun June 28, 2006

After Warning, NASA Removes Shuttle Official

By Shalin Punn

The forced removal of the NASA official who last week doubted whether the Shuttle Discovery was safe to fly is reviving concerns over the safety of the crew to be blasted into space on Saturday.

Charles Camarda, an astronaut on the failed Discovery mission in 2005, said in an e-mail to colleagues he had been forced out of the team responsible for the safety of the flight.

"I refused to abandon my position on the mission management team and asked that if I would not be allowed to work this mission that I would have to be fired and I was," he said.

Mr. Camarda, the director of engineering at NASA's Johnson Space Center, had expressed support for NASA officials who opposed the decision to launch the shuttle on July 1. They were concerned about the shedding of foam from the shuttle's external fuel tanks - the same problem that led to the Columbia disaster in February 2003 with the loss of all seven lives on board.

A number of officials, including the chief engineer, Christopher Scolese, and the head safety officer, Bryan O'Connor, were worried that the problem had not been overcome and had argued that the launch be delayed.

In his e-mail, Mr. Camarda maintained his support for those who opposed the weekend launch. "I am most proud of the way I can count on you to do and say the right things and stand up and be counted (at the June 17 review meeting)," he said in the message, disclosed in the newspaper Florida Today. He has refused to talk to the press, saying he does not want to "distract attention away from the mission."

A spokesman from the Johnson Space Center, James Hartsfield, said that Mr. Camarda had only been "reassigned" to NASA's Engineering and Safety Center on the basis of his "engineering skills" in order to "look at the safety capacities of space shuttles." Mr. Camarda confirmed the re-assignment, adding that he will "continue to support this agency that I love."

The public affairs officer for the NASA administration, Dean Acosta, added that the decision to re-assign Mr. Camarda had "nothing to do with any safety issues."

"It was an internal decision, so I cannot get into the specifics," he said.

A critic of NASA's space program since the Columbia disaster told The New York Sun that this latest episode highlights NASA's uncertainty when it comes to safety issues. "It appears as if NASA lacks confidence in their own work," the director of GlobalSecurity.org, John Pike, said. "I fear that they cannot withstand criticism, even from within their own organization."

He said NASA "should have been persuaded ... to call it quits," by last year's Discovery mission, when foam continued to fall upon the heat shield at take-off. "I wish they wouldn't do things like this," he said.

The crew of five men and two women arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida yesterday to prepare for the launch, scheduled for 2:49 p.m. on Saturday. One factor that could stand in the way of the launch now is the weather. NASA will make a decision following its own weather forecast this morning.


Copyright 2006, The New York Sun, One SL, LLC.