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The Nation | THE COLUMBIA DISASTER

NASA to Expand Investigative Panel Amid Worries of Whitewash

February 07, 2003|Scott Gold and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writers

HOUSTON — NASA will add people to a panel investigating the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, its administrator said Thursday, amid concerns that the panel's members are too close to the agency and that the probe will be a whitewash.

As originally envisioned by NASA, the panel consists of nine current or former government officials, many with close ties to the space agency and five of them in the military.

As the panel members were arriving in Houston, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told reporters that the government planned to revise the charter of the board to allow for additional members. The new members, O'Keefe said, will probably be people without any "specific association or involvement with NASA," and will add new expertise and new "voice."

"This is to absolutely guarantee that we eliminated any ambiguity as to the independence of this board," O'Keefe said. "We want to be sure ... that we are not eliminating any sort of possibilities of what could have contributed to this accident."

O'Keefe's announcement came after 16 House Democrats sent a letter to President Bush urging him to expand the panel and its charter, which calls for it to answer to NASA, not to the president or Congress. The letter said the panel had the "appearance of a non-independent board controlled by NASA."

Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee said he fears the board's conclusions will not be credible unless it is clearly perceived as independent. Gordon is the ranking Democrat on the House space subcommittee.

"The so-called external review commission is appointed by NASA, staffed by NASA and reports back to the NASA administrator," Gordon said in an interview. "As able as these individuals are, I'm afraid there will be a credibility problem with their report."

Gordon said the board needs to look broadly at NASA itself, to see if organizational problems contributed to the loss of Columbia, as was the case in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

A commission appointed by then-President Reagan found NASA's flawed decision-making process to be a contributing factor.

It was not immediately clear whether the changes promised by O'Keefe would satisfy Gordon and other critics.

Also Thursday, NASA officials said they have sent a former astronaut to Northern California to look into the "pedigree" of a photograph that allegedly shows Columbia being struck by lightning or some other atmospheric electric event.

The former astronaut, Dr. Tamara E. "Tammy" Jernigan, will try to determine whether the photo, taken by a witness on the ground, is legitimate. If it is, it could open a new arm of the investigation, but authorities said they do not have great hopes that the evidence will mark a breakthrough.

NASA has received dozens of photographs and videos taken by witnesses on the ground. Several have turned out to be bogus, investigators say, others merely useless.

"We are examining it carefully," said Ron Dittemore, NASA's space shuttle program manager. "We are trying to determine whether it is a valid representation of an event."

Dittemore also said that NASA has not confirmed that any shuttle wreckage has been discovered west of Fort Worth, despite receiving numerous reports to the contrary.

Several witnesses have reported seeing wreckage falling from the shuttle over California, and investigators have said those pieces could ultimately be the key to the investigation.

Near the Texas-Louisiana line, some investigators reportedly were looking for a secret communication device, but the significance of the device remained unclear late Thursday.

Dittemore spent much of Thursday briefing the panel, chaired by retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman.

Dittemore added that he made it clear to the panel members that NASA investigators have not ruled out any causes for the destruction of Columbia -- "even though we scratch our heads from time to time and wonder if we're going down the right path."

For instance, though engineers are fairly certain that the now-famous piece of foam insulation that struck the shuttle on liftoff did not cause enough damage to ultimately destroy the craft, Dittemore said, NASA will continue to test the impact of the insulation on the shuttle's heat-resistant tiles.

*

Times staff writer Eric Malnic contributed to this report.

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