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THE NATION

NASA Puts Cost of Shuttle Inquiry, Cleanup at $400 Million

Expenses relating to the accident board and the recovery of pieces of the Columbia are detailed.

September 12, 2003|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The investigation and cleanup of the space shuttle Columbia accident has cost the government almost $400 million, NASA officials said Thursday.

The space agency spent $18.7 million on direct costs of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the 13-member panel of outside experts who analyzed the Feb. 1 tragedy. That spending included transportation, the hiring of consultants and administrative costs such as the printing of the 248-page report.

NASA spent $112.6 million in supporting the board's investigation. This included the elaborate foam-shooting experiments at the Southwest Research Center in San Antonio. The tests involved firing chunks of lightweight insulation at a high rate of speed from a gas cannon at a mock-up of the shuttle wing and heat shield.

The experiments showed that even flimsy insulation, if traveling fast enough and hitting just the right place, can break the reinforced carbon panels on the shuttle wing. One investigator said the experiment was the "smoking gun" of the board's search for the cause of the Columbia accident.

NASA spent $21.1 million to help in the collection and assembly of about 84,000 pieces of Columbia recovered from East Texas and Louisiana. The Federal Emergency Management Administration spent at least an additional $235 million, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said Thursday.

Columbia broke apart while returning to Earth, killing the seven astronauts on board. Pieces of the craft were scattered across hundreds of miles of Texas and Louisiana. More than 14,000 federal and state workers and volunteers walked almost shoulder to shoulder through forests and swamps in search of space shuttle pieces. Divers combed the bottom of Texas lakes and helicopters searched from the air.

NASA is now in the process of making repairs to the space shuttle fleet and the engineering and procedure changes in the shuttle program management that were recommended by the board.

O'Keefe said that the final expense of these changes is still not certain because engineers are considering a range of redesign options that will affect cost.

The total cost of the accident, apart from the investigation, includes the loss of the $2-billion Columbia orbiter and more than $4 billion in space shuttle operating costs that must be borne while the fleet remains grounded and unable to perform missions.

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