NASA's Chief Chafes at Idea of Helplessness

Times Staff Writer

NASA would have worked around the clock to save the space shuttle Columbia if it had known the craft was in danger, the agency administrator said Friday, rejecting suggestions that an in-flight failure of the orbiter's heat-shielding system would have been impossible to address.

"I fundamentally, absolutely, reject the proposition that there was nothing that could have been done," Sean O'Keefe said in a briefing at NASA headquarters.

"There is positively nothing that would have been spared in our efforts to find out what to do to avoid catastrophe."

With his assertion, O'Keefe added to the debate over how the agency examined -- and ultimately discounted -- possible threats to the shuttle before it disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1.

In essence, O'Keefe said that if the right information had gotten to the right people at the right time, an all-out effort would have been made to try to save the orbiter and its seven astronauts.

Critics in Congress and elsewhere are reviewing the space agency's deliberations over whether the flight was in danger because of damage suffered at liftoff and, if so, whether anything could have been done.

Internal e-mails released in recent days have given the public an extraordinary glimpse into the operations of NASA during the 16-day mission -- what O'Keefe called "an intensive fish-tank examination."

In a wide-ranging, two-hour briefing, O'Keefe recalled the legendary and ultimately successful scramble to save the crew of Apollo 13 in 1970 after an oxygen tank exploded during the spacecraft's voyage to the moon.

He said it would be "fallacious" to assume NASA would not have tried to do the same for Columbia's crew if it knew of a mortal threat.

However, in the hours and days after the Columbia was lost, NASA officials took pains to discount the possibility of an in-flight fix in the event of damage to the thermal tiles that shielded the shuttle from the searing heat of reentry.

Astronauts could not have walked in space or used a robotic arm to inspect or repair the tiles themselves, shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore told reporters at the time.

"We know we have no capability," Dittemore said on Feb. 1. "If, for some reason, we thought we had a tile problem, the risk you take when you launch is that you may suffer a tile issue. We have no capability to repair it.

"All we can do is, before we launch, design robustness into the system so that a loss of some tile capability will not result in loss of crew or vehicle."

On Feb. 2, Dittemore bluntly rejected the notion that using a U.S. military telescope might have helped NASA evaluate potential tile damage on the shuttle's vulnerable underbelly while it was in orbit.

"Even if I had information, I can't do anything about it," Dittemore said. "I'm really helpless to go out and do any tile repair."

Whether tile damage or some other problem led to the shuttle's breakup is the subject of an inquiry by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. O'Keefe has repeatedly said that NASA will await the board's findings and recommendations before launching any of the three remaining shuttles.

While NASA has said the probe will be independent, the head of the accident board, retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., sent the space agency a letter expressing misgivings that NASA employees were participating too closely in the investigation.

Board spokeswoman Laura Brown said she could not comment.

In his briefing, O'Keefe addressed a host of issues raised by the loss of the second shuttle in 17 years.

* He acknowledged that NASA does not have a specific plan to deal with a substantial tile-damage problem while a craft is in orbit. "I don't know if that is going to be an imperative ... to have an in-orbit, tile-repair kit."

* He reiterated that the Bush administration remains committed to flying shuttles, safely. And he said NASA would move as quickly as possible to address obvious problems, such as the foam debris that fell off an external tank and hit the Columbia's left wing at liftoff.

* He acknowledged that Congress and the public would reexamine the agency's operations, goals and $15.5-billion proposed annual budget from top to bottom. "Yes indeed, everything is on the table," he said. "This is going to be a wide public debate."

But O'Keefe said that the administration intends to follow a blueprint it drew up before the disaster -- one that assumes continued operation of the shuttle program for a decade or longer, the development of a new orbital space plane during that time and the development of other technologies to extend the potential reach of manned and unmanned spaceflight.

Much of the briefing focused on management issues. O'Keefe, who has been on the job for about 14 months and who had little previous space expertise, acknowledged concerns about whether the agency administrator should take a more hands-on role in mission operations.

"It's a very important question and one I will not dodge," O'Keefe said. So far, he said, his style has been to delegate authority in order to encourage others to take responsibility for the success of a mission. "Arguably, I am the least competent individual" to lead operations, O'Keefe said.

But he added: "There is no question about this: This accident happened on my watch. I am accountable."

Asked about internal e-mails released this week that showed debate over possible catastrophic scenarios during Columbia's last flight, O'Keefe called them "reassuring."

"This is very clear evidence of spirited discussion that goes on during the course of an operation," O'Keefe said. If that type of discussion had been missing, he added, "I would worry that either complacency was evident, or that people just didn't care."

To support his claim that internal safety debates are common at NASA, O'Keefe cited two episodes. During Columbia's next-to-last flight, he said, engineers examined and solved to their satisfaction the circumstances behind an apparent air-conditioning glitch in the craft.

The NASA administrator also recounted the tale of another shuttle mission, STS-113. In that instance in November 2002, Mission Control postponed the launch of the shuttle Endeavour for 24 hours even though conditions were perfect at Cape Canaveral. The reason for the delay: marginal weather was reported at a site in Spain where the shuttle would have landed if the mission had aborted.

O'Keefe said he marveled at the caution the agency showed because an abort site has never been used in the history of the shuttle program.

"There is just no stone left unturned," he said.

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