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Space Shuttle Columbia

O'Keefe: 'A tragic day for the NASA family'

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe at the agency's first news conference following the accident
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe at the agency's first news conference following the accident

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NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe comments on the events that led up to the Columbia tragedy Saturday morning. (February 1)
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Transcript of remarks from NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and Astronaut Bill Readdy:

O'KEEFE: As indicated earlier, we'll make a statement today at this point, and a little later this afternoon at about 3:00 Eastern time there will be a full technical briefing conducted from the Johnson Space Center. So at this point, we're just going to give you the circumstances as we understand them leading up to this particular tragedy today.

This is, indeed, a tragic day for the NASA family, for the families of the astronauts who flew on STS-107 and, likewise, tragic for the nation.

Immediately upon indication of a loss of communications on STS-107, at a little after 9:00 a.m. this morning, we began our contingency plan to preserve all the information relative to the flight activities.

I immediately advised the president and the secretary of homeland security, Secretary Tom Ridge, at the point after landing was due to have occurred at 9:16 (EST), spoke to them very briefly thereafter to advise that we had lost contact with the shuttle orbiter Columbia and STS-107 crew.

They offered -- the president specifically offered the full and immediate support to determine what the appropriate steps were thereafter to be taken.

We then spent the next hour and a half working through the detail and information of what we have received, and Bill Readdy will walk you through the specifics of those operational and technical issues here in just a moment.

Thereafter, we have met with the family members of the astronauts who were here at Kennedy Space Center and are soon to be departing back to Johnson, to Houston.

The president has called and spoken to them to express our deepest national regrets. We have assured them that we will begin the process immediately to recover their loved ones and understand the cause of this tragedy.

At this time, we have no indication that the mishap was caused by anything or anyone on the ground.

We've assembled a mishap investigation team that immediately was assembled upon the point of past the stage in which the orbiter was to have landed here at Kennedy Space Center, a little after 9:30. And that team in turn is coordinating on a regular basis on all the facts that are pertaining to this from the Johnson Space Center and a rapid response team from here at the Kennedy Space Center as well as participants from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

In addition to these internal efforts, we have also appointed a mishap investigation board, an external group of people who are independent from NASA who will immediately be charged with the opportunity to look at all of the information that was immediately locked down right after our absence of communications.

Each of these individuals are safety and mission assurance-related officials in other federal departments of the federal government, from the Air Force, from the Navy, from the Department of Transportation, and across the federal expanse.

The investigation team also will be chaired by an individual contacted to serve who is external to the federal agencies. And we'll have the opportunity to coordinate all of the information again from an external view.

So we'll be conducting both the internal activity as well as an external review immediately to ascertain the causes and circumstances under which this tragedy occurred.

We'll pull together all of the federal agencies and local governments as well. In discussion several times this morning with Secretary Tom Ridge, the effort is heavily under way to coordinate an understanding of exactly where the orbiter path had taken it from West Texas toward the Kennedy Space Center here in Florida, and to make sure that the material on the ground is secured so that the investigation can begin promptly.

We urge anyone who believes they have discovered or found any material to stay away from it and to please contact local officials. The local first-responder groups for emergency services and so forth have been authorized and directed by Secretary Tom Ridge to assist in all manner. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is coordinating that effort on the part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Here this morning with the families of the astronauts and their friends started out as a pretty happy morning, awaiting the landing of STS-107. And we had highly anticipated their return because we couldn't wait to congratulate them for their extraordinary performance and the excellent efforts on the science mission on this very important flight.

They dedicated their lives to pushing the scientific challenges for all of us here on Earth, and they dedicated themselves to that objective and did it with a happy heart, willingly and with great enthusiasm.

The loss of this valiant crew is something we will never be able to get over. And certainly the families of all of them we have assured we will do everything, everything we can possibly do to guarantee that they work their way through this horrific tragedy.

We ask the members of the media to honor that too, to please respect their privacy and please understand the tragedy that they are going through at this time. We will help the media assure that be the case as well.

We trust that the prayers of the nation will be with them and with their families. And again, a more courageous group of people you could not have hoped to know than the families of these crew members. An extraordinary, extraordinary group of astronauts who gave their lives and did it in a way that they knew exactly the risk but never in a -- ever do we ever want to see a circumstance where something like this could ever happen.

And we diligently dedicate ourselves every single day to assuring these things don't occur. And when they do, we have to act

responsibly, accountably, and that's exactly what we will do.

To give you more of the operational detail of what has occurred here since 9:00 a.m. this morning, the associate administrator for space flight, a former astronaut, retired captain in the United States Navy, former test flight pilot, Bill Readdy, who has commanded two separate missions previously as an astronaut and is now, again, our associate administrator for space flight, has worked with me all morning, along with all of us here at Kennedy Space Center, to work through the details of the events as we know them and to present to you the facts as we understand them.

Again, the technical details that are being worked very diligently now will be covered again at 3:00 p.m. this afternoon out of the Johnson Space Center.

With that, I'm going to turn it over to Captain Bill Readdy.

READDY: This is a truly difficult day for all of us. Many of us were standing alongside the runway waiting to celebrate their triumphant return after a 16-day science mission.

Astronaut Bill Readdy
Astronaut Bill Readdy

I think you could tell from the down link that they loved what they were doing and they thought what they were doing was extremely important, pushing back those boundaries in science.

At 9 o'clock we heard that they had lost data from the space craft, and it appears that that was at about 200,000 feet and about Mach 18.

The loss of data was somewhere over north-central Texas. And at the planned landing time of 9:16 we initiated our contingency action plan, called the Rescue Coordination Center and initiated a search and rescue effort.

Sadly, I think from the video that's available, does not appear that there were any survivors.

We have currently impounded all the data, including all the pre-flight certification of flight readiness for STS-107.

And at this point, I'd have to say it's too early to speculate about the exact cause. Obviously, we're looking at all the data that we have available.

Those people who have videos, those people that have still pictures, we'll urge you to contact NASA so that we can coordinate those things that might be available.

And to reiterate what the administrator said: Those people that may find debris, do not touch it, do not move it. Contact your local authorities. Have them impound it and secure the area so that our technical specialists will be able to piece together the puzzle so that we can resolve what happened.

The immediate focus is on the crew families, and we spent some time with them. The president called. I'd have to say the families are bearing up with an incredible amount of dignity, considering their loss.

We all grieve for them, we all pray with them for the crew. But one thing came across loud and clear when visiting with them, is they knew that the crew was absolutely dedicated to the mission that they were performing. And I think you could see that in the video down link. They believed in what they were doing.

And in the conversations with the crew and their families, they said that we must find what happened and fix it and move on, and we can't let their sacrifice be in vain.

Today was a very stark reminder that this is a very risky endeavor, pushing back the frontiers in outer space. And after 113 flights, unfortunately people have a tendency to look at it as something that is more or less routine. Well, I can assure you, it is not. Each and every time I flew, each and every time my colleagues flew, we treated that with the respect it deserved from a professional standpoint.

And I have to say that, as the one responsible for shuttle and station within the NASA, that I know that the people of NASA did everything possible preparing for this flight to make it as perfect as possible.

My promise to the crew and to the crew families is that the investigation that we have just launched will find the cause, we'll fix it, and then we'll move on.

Thank you.

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