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Excerpts from Sunday NASA briefing on space shuttle disaster

Monday, February 03, 2003

By The Associated Press

Excerpts from NASA's briefing Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003 on the space shuttle Columbia disaster:

Ron Dittemore, NASA space shuttle program director:

On collecting debris from the shuttle:

For what you have done so far, we express our thanks. Gathering this information, gathering the debris, notifying to us the locations has been important for us in this first step of piecing together the puzzle. And we are beginning to make progress.

Ron Dittemore, space shuttle program manager, speaks during a press briefing at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, yesterday morning. (Joe Cavaretta, AP photo)

You asked me yesterday whether we were concentrating on the tile only. We are not. There are other areas _ we're looking at structure, we're looking at thermal indications, we're looking at flight control. And as we bury down into the data, we're getting more and more information that will help us decipher the problem and get the pieces of the puzzle together to help us find the cause.

On whether the space shuttle crew knew there was a problem:

Well, based on our familiarity with the crew and the training regimen, we know ... what they were doing during re-entry. We know they're monitoring flight control systems. We know that they're monitoring attitude. We train them to do that. As pilots, that is what they're going to do. So we're confident that's exactly what they were doing. We have no data, no communication, no evidence that the crew was alarmed.

On why NASA didn't examine possible damage with telescopes or spy satellites:

The best experts at our disposal concluded that it was a minor problem, not a significant problem. And when you added all that up, there was no need to take pictures to document any evidence, because we believed it to be superficial and it to be a turnaround issue and not a safety issue. And so, we didn't take any pictures.

On what kind of external fuel tank was used on Columbia:

We have really two types of tank in our inventory. We have what we call a lightweight tank and super lightweight tank. The super lightweight tank was developed in our efforts to improve our performance, to gain more cargo lift capability to the station. The lightweight tank is what we flew, consistently, many years ago. And the one that we flew on SDS-107 was one of two that we had in our inventory remaining.

There's no concern about the lightweight tank. It's just different material than the super lightweight. It weighs roughly 6,000 to 7,000 more pounds than the super lightweight tank. But structurally and performance-wise, we had used it for many years and had no reason to doubt its capability.

On the usefulness of wreckage in investigation:

We're hopeful that there are some clues remaining to be found through investigation of the evidence that we gather on the ground. We're hopeful that there are pieces of hardware that we can look at that will help us solve this puzzle.

And, as in any reconstruction of a catastrophic event, it's going to take some time. We're pulling together the experts in the country that do these types of things, and we are very hopeful that we will find the necessary information that will help us solve why Columbia was destroyed.

On NASA's early efforts to devise a way to repair shuttle tiles:

Early in the program, we recognized that if we lost tile or multiple tile that we didn't have any repair technique, and we tried to develop such a technique. We finally abandoned pursuing that option. We just didn't believe it was feasible at the time.

We were also very concerned that _ as you send a spacewalk crewmember over the side of the vehicle and go underneath the vehicle, we are concerned that just the nature of them trying to position themselves in space underneath the vehicle could cause more damage than what we were trying to fix.

And so the risk was greater to send a crew over the side to try to do something that was very hard to do than it was to try to fix whatever problem that we thought was not a significant risk. So we made those trades and, finally, abandoned the idea of trying to have some tile-repair kit or tile-repair capability.

On the heat-protective tiles on the shuttle:

We've flown this vehicle for over 20 years, and our tile system of insulation has performed wonderfully. True, we have some repair that we have to do from time to time. But it's a unique design. It's lightweight, and it performs its job extremely well in rejecting the heat.

What we have invested over the years is time and energy and money in trying to develop a stronger tile, where a tile has a stronger surface so that, when it is hit by debris, it doesn't penetrate the black surface of the tile....

An older tile would be damaged during the launch phase, and every flight, as it comes back, we would have to repair or replace the tile. The newer tiles on the back end of the vehicle look shiny new, don't require any tender-loving care.

And so we have made advances in tile....

We are continuing to investigate whether we can develop a stronger, tougher tile. We're spending money this year to do so. We've been spending money for many years to try to develop this technology. We haven't been successful yet to make an improvement over the existing tile, but we're making progress.

Bob Cabana, director of flight crew operations:

It's been a tremendously difficult last couple of days. Yesterday was probably the hardest day in my life, to have to sit down with the families of close friends and tell them that their husbands and wives and moms and dads aren't going to be coming home. And if you've never had to do that, I hope you never have to.

On talking to the three members of the international space station crew:

Mostly it was just sharing. I shared with them. They're grieving up there, also. And they feel a little isolated. We're keeping them fully informed. And I told (NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox) I wouldn't keep anything from him, anything I knew down here on the ground about what was going on, he would know on orbit.

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