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Space Shuttle Columbia

O'Keefe: No signs of trouble during Columbia mission

Lawmakers stress need for independent review of accident

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

NASA chief Sean O'Keefe testifies Wednesday before Congress
NASA chief Sean O'Keefe testifies Wednesday before Congress

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- NASA had no signs of trouble from the shuttle Columbia during its mission, the space agency's top administrator told a joint House-Senate panel probing the loss of shuttle and its seven-member crew.

"We had no indications that would suggest a compromise to flight safety," Sean O'Keefe told a panel comprised of lawmakers from House and Senate space committees.

"The time it has taken me to present this testimony is about the same amount of time that transpired between when mission control first notice anomalies in temperature measurements and the accident," O'Keefe said, before pausing to make a point. "I just paused for a few seconds, that is the same amount of time that transpired from mission controls last communication with the crew and our loss of signal with the heroic Columbia astronauts."

O'Keefe vowed that a separate review board investigating the shuttle tragedy would maintain its independence from NASA and would get to the bottom of the accident February 1, when the shuttle disintegrated upon its return to Earth after what had been a successful 16-day mission.

But several lawmakers said NASA had to take more steps to ensure the independence of the review board.

The hearing opened with comments from lawmakers, several of whom said that manned space flight can and should continue. Some raised questions about NASA's budget and government reports which warned of personnel shortages and funding cuts. But O'Keefe maintained that safety was never compromised, pointing out that NASA's contracts with private industry even provide financial incentives for improved safety performance.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, described the hearing as the "start of a long conversation" about both the Columbia tragedy and the nation's space program.

O'Keefe faced some tough questions about NASA's priorities. Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-South Carolina, questioned the emphasis on the existing shuttle program, saying NASA should move faster to developing new technologies.

"We've lost 14 astronauts and $5 billion in hardware with upgrades," Hollings, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, said, referencing the Columbia tragedy and the loss of the Challengers and its crew in 1986.

Several lawmakers stressed the need for a exhaustive probe of the shuttle tragedy.

"It's important that we have a thorough investigation of the accident...so the American people know everything is on the table," said Rep. Ralph Hall, D-Texas.

O'Keefe said the shuttle program would continue, but he said it was not clear when the next shuttle would be launched. He said NASA officials are talking with their counterparts in Russia to make sure the astronauts on the International Space Station have the supplies they need.


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