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Space Shuttle Columbia

NASA chief blasted over shuttle memos

Engineers' e-mails warned of burning wing

By Richard Stenger

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe talks to the House Science Committee on Thursday.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe talks to the House Science Committee on Thursday.

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CNN's John Zarrella says NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe endured searing criticism in a congressional hearing Thursday (February 27)
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe endured searing criticism in a congressional hearing Thursday, the day after the release of NASA memos that raised safety concerns with chilling premonitions of the space shuttle Columbia disaster.

In the internal e-mails, shuttle engineers raised fears that the left wing of the orbiter could burn off with the loss of the crew.

The memos, written in the days before the Columbia broke apart, never reached top NASA management. The orbiter was lost during atmospheric re-entry February 1 shortly after experiencing problems with its left wing.

"I read this stuff before you did. That's crazy," said U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-New York, referring to reports in the press late Wednesday.

Weiner heatedly demanded to know why the concerns had not reached O'Keefe while the shuttle was in flight.

"Have you fired anyone for not bringing them to your attention sooner? I can't think of anything more important on your desk than how's that shuttle doing," he said.

O'Keefe responded that the appropriate experts had considered all possible problems and decided that there was no landing risk.

"We encourage, expect, demand that people exchange ideas and solutions on how to deal with anomalies that occur on flight," O'Keefe told the House committee hearing.

"There are lots of different issues that are worked through. I am certainly not privy to every single discussion that goes on within the agency."

Should every single discussion within an agency with thousands of employees reach his desk, "that would mean that we have gridlock," he said.

U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee, cautioned that it was too early to assign blame.

"We need to investigate how the e-mail traffic from this mission differed from previous missions," said Boehlert, R-New York.

Nagging questions after launch

At the January 16 launch, Columbia's left wing was struck by debris from the external fuel tank. A risk assessment from Boeing, a major shuttle contractor, determined there was no landing risk.

But nagging concerns about damage to protective thermal tiles underneath the shuttle convinced midlevel shuttle engineers to consider possible problems with touchdown.

start quoteWhy are we talking about this on the day before landing and not the day after launch?end quote
-- Bill Anderson of the United Space Alliance LLC in a January 31 memo

"Why are we talking about this on the day before landing and not the day after launch?" asked Bill Anderson of the United Space Alliance LLC, the primary space shuttle contractor, in a January 31 memo.

While the group focused on how to manage an emergency landing if the landing gear were damaged, Anderson cautioned that the stakes could be much higher.

"If the wing is off, or has a big hole in it, you're not going to make the runway and the gear question is moot," he said.

Hours earlier, Jeffrey Kling, a flight controller at NASA's Johnson Space Center, had outlined possible landing problems if launch debris had breached a shuttle landing gear wheel well.

He warned that a breach, by allowing super hot gas to bore into the orbiter, could blow off the gear door and even affect the interior aluminum structure of the wing, with dire consequences.

"Ultimately our ... recommendation in that case is going to be to set up for a bailout (assuming the wing doesn't burn off before we can get the crew out)," he said.

In such a scenario, he wrote, the orbiter could register a temperature increase and lose sensor readings involving tire pressure and hydraulics.

The next day, Kling was among the flight controllers in Mission Control who reported the abrupt, mysterious loss of a sequence of sensor readings in the left wing, shortly after a temperature rise was detected in the left wheel well.

Shortly after the e-mails were released, Kling told reporters that the entire team had complete faith in the analysis done by Boeing engineers which concluded that the launch tank foam had not inflicted a fatal blow.

"The e-mails were 'What if?' scenarios where we talked about it like we do in our normal job. We bat things around and say 'What if?' sort of things and work through the whole thing," he said in a conference telephone call.

-- CNN Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien contributed to this report.

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