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Space Shuttle Columbia

Engineer who raised red flag defends NASA

Daugherty: 'My e-mails were absolutely taken seriously'

By Jeordan Legon

Robert Daugherty, a senior research engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center.
Robert Daugherty, a senior research engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center, said he believed Columbia would return safely.

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(CNN) -- A NASA engineer who warned that "getting information was being treated like the plague" defended the space agency Monday, saying his e-mails warning of "catastrophic" results for the space shuttle Columbia were handled appropriately.

"The perception that my e-mails weren't taken seriously, frankly, I don't know where that came from," said Robert Daugherty, a senior research engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center. "I thought my e-mails were absolutely taken seriously."

Daugherty and several NASA engineers took part in an e-mail exchange that pondered the possibility of Columbia's loss as late as the day before the craft broke up February 1, but those e-mails were not shared with top agency officials.

The engineers involved in the exchange were not responsible for assessing possible damage to the orbiter caused by pieces of foam that broke away from the shuttle's external fuel tank 81 seconds after launch. That analysis was completed by two teams of engineers who work for shuttle contractor Boeing.

The Boeing studies, which did rise to the highest levels of the shuttle program, suggested that the damage to the heat-shielding tiles might require repairs but was not extensive enough to cause the catastrophic loss of the vehicle and crew.

In his first public remarks since the accident, Daugherty backed NASA's position, saying his e-mails were not warnings but rather examples of employees engaging in cautionary analyses, something the space agency encourages.

But in a January 29 e-mail to a colleague, Daugherty, an 18-year NASA veteran who is an expert on the orbiter's landing gear, expressed reservations about the tile-damage assessments performed by the Boeing teams in Huntington Beach, California. He wrote, "... They think things are 'survivable,' but marginal.'

"The amount of damage was in some respects unknown. That combined with talking these scenarios [through] with colleagues ..., there was some uneasiness there," he said Monday. "But I certainly believed everything was going to be perfectly fine."

When Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing the seven-member crew, he said, he instantly thought of the e-mails warning of the risks.

"Certainly, that is the first thing that ran through my mind," he said. "I was certainly hoping something like that wasn't the case."

Daugherty sought permission from NASA's independent investigation board to speak to reporters because he felt some of his e-mail comments had been misconstrued. His comment classifying getting information as "being treated like the plague" was related to simulations being run at the Ames Research Center in California and not to the space agency as a whole, he said.

"I always want to get information I'm after immediately," he said. "There was some frustration about getting that information."

Mark Shuart, Daugherty's supervisor, said he felt the e-mails were handled properly.

"I can assure you that anything sent by Bob Daugherty was taken seriously by me and those above me," he said. "From my perspective, I don't see any different way [we could have] handled these e-mails."

But some politicians, including California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, have expressed concerns that the e-mails did not reach the right NASA officials.

If the e-mails from Daugherty and others didn't reach mission managers, Rohrbacher told The Orange County Register, that "may itself be very disturbing in terms of process."

-- CNN space correspondent Miles O'Brien contributed to this report.

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