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This Door NASA Will Keep Closed

The Columbia inquiry is more open to public view than Challenger's, but questions about the seven astronauts' fate remain off-limits.

March 30, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Inside the hangar where NASA has collected wreckage from Columbia, engineers and scientists have strung up a banner signed by dozens of schoolkids, who wrote in large block letters, "We honor the crew of the Columbia."

Just behind that banner is a special room, where NASA allows no visitors. It's the place where investigators keep the wreckage of the crew compartment and the astronauts' personal items.

Columbia burned up trying to reenter the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Searchers located their remains in Texas, and the crew was honored in memorial services all over the country. Positive identification of the remains for all seven astronauts was made at an Air Force base in Dover, Del.

Nonetheless, NASA is closely holding information about how the astronauts may have perished. At the hangar, senior investigators will say little about what's in the room.

Questions bring terse answers. And repeated questions bring sharp replies to back off. Although the breakup of Columbia and the death of the seven astronauts aboard occurred nine weeks ago, emotions are still raw at the sprawling space complex here along Florida's Atlantic coast. The mood in the debris hangar remains somber.

On the hangar floor, investigators have laid out thousands of bits and pieces of the shuttle's underbelly in an effort to understand the forces that burned up the left wing. Against the hangar's north wall are 13 large boxes filled with pieces so tiny they may never be identified. Much of the wreckage is so badly burned and twisted that it hardly resembles anything. And other pieces fell to Earth in such perfect condition that they could be put back on an orbiter and flown again.

"For people at the Kennedy Space Center, we love the orbiters," said Mike Leinbach, the engineer who is running the reconstruction investigation at the hangar here. "We work on the orbiter three shifts a day, seven days a week. It becomes part of our family that we have crawled through and sweated on. We feel we have lost a family member. It is hard to describe."

Even harder to deal with are the pieces of wreckage that constitute the accident's death scene. Leinbach said he allows only investigators with a direct need to know into the room and rejects any discussion of what is inside the room, saying it would offend the astronauts' families. Asked by a Texas reporter how that might offend the families, Leinbach firmly replied: "We don't go here."

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the independent safety panel running the probe, handles questions about the crew with equal delicacy. Board Chairman Harold W. Gehman Jr. handles all such questions personally, though he usually dismisses them.

The issue of astronaut deaths has always been among the most troubling issues for NASA. On the one hand, NASA holds astronauts up as public heroes. On the other hand, the agency goes to extraordinary lengths to control their exposure. Robert D. Cabana, head of the astronaut corps in Houston, declined a request for an interview.

The 1986 Challenger accident, which also killed seven crew members, left NASA looking inept and brutally cold for its handling of the matter. The agency clearly wants to do better this time.

"It is our effort to be hypersensitive to the families," said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel. "We got hammered after the Challenger."

In that accident, Navy search teams located the remains of the astronauts in the Atlantic Ocean and brought them to Cape Canaveral by ship in the middle of the night. According to some news accounts at the time, NASA secretly transported the remains of several astronauts from the pier to an Air Force base in plastic bags placed in the back of a pickup truck.

The agency was attempting to hold off news organizations, which had chartered ships and helicopters to track NASA's efforts to locate the remains.

This time around, the agency is trying to be more open and to take a more dignified approach, agency officials say. Charles Bolden, a shuttle astronaut who piloted two missions and commanded two from 1986 to 1994, said he believes the agency is doing a better job, agreeing the agency went overboard in its pursuit of secrecy during the Challenger recovery operation.

"That's the way they were back then," Bolden said. "This time around, it was difficult to hide anything, because you had the general public in the field participating in the search. I had the opportunity to talk to searchers in Palestine, Texas, who were in on the discovery of crew remains. I didn't ask any questions about it, and they weren't anxious to talk about it, because they understood the respect everybody wants to give, so you don't have gruesome stories going around about whether a body was intact or not intact."

Still, Bolden said, sometimes NASA goes too far in its effort to isolate astronauts.

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