Knowledge of e-mails would have spurred probe, top NASA official says

By Seth Borenstein Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) WASHINGTON _ Just one more call, which was considered but not made, would have informed senior space-shuttle managers about prophetic e-mails from NASA engineers who feared a potential landing disaster for Columbia, a top agency official revealed Thursday. William Readdy, NASA’s associate administrator for human spaceflight, told The Miami Herald that he would have investigated the concerns raised in the e-mails had they been forwarded to him _ as suggested by a senior manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. Readdy said he would have called shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore as well as the key decision-making mission management team in Houston to “see what their evaluation was.” Top Johnson Space Center officials in Houston never knew about the 32 e-mails that raised the possibility of losing the seven-member crew and the shuttle on reentry because of suspected damage to the shuttle’s tiles at its launch. Lower lever engineers never raised their concerns to higher NASA management, agency spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said, after an analysis by Boeing Co., a major NASA contractor, decided that potential shuttle tile damage was not a safety problem. Less than a day before Columbia was destroyed in reentry, an associate research director at Langley, Doug Dwoyer, e-mailed Langley director Del Freeman asking if the worries of engineers should be forwarded to Readdy. Freeman had a staffer check with Houston officials and decided the matter did not need to be sent to Washington, according to NASA officials. In one of the e-mails, shuttle engineer Kevin McCluney worried about damage to the shuttle’s thermal tiles that were struck during launch by a piece of insulating foam from an external tank. McCluney feared a risky landing, a bailout attempt or landing-gear failure that would lead to “LOCV” _ NASA-speak for “loss of crew and vehicle.” At a congressional hearing Thursday, Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., compared the e-mails to the warnings ignored before Challenger’s explosion in 1986 explosion. Weiner appeared upset that NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe didn’t even know about the e-mail exchange until Wednesday, 25 days after Columbia’s accident. “I would be surprised if there is one person in the entire organization that raised a concern that you as the administrator would not want to be aware of. And this was a vigorous debate among experts going back and forth,” Weiner said. “What is absolutely amazing to me is that I read the stuff before you did. I mean that’s crazy.” O’Keefe defended the agency, saying: “It sure looks like that dialogue went on at the exact right levels for the operational considerations.” Those officials decided it was not a safety issue, O’Keefe said. But O’Keefe said he is waiting for an independent investigation board to determine if there is “a systemic or management question of where those judgments are made that needs to be altered.” The chairman of the House Science Committee, Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., defended the agency decision-making as appropriate for what may just have been routine what-if-ing among engineers. However, Boehlert got O’Keefe to concede that lower-lever NASA engineers had made a mistake when they decided to cancel a request for help from the Defense Department to inspect the shuttle in orbit. A couple of days after Columbia’s launch, a Kennedy Space Center engineer asked the Defense Department to use a military satellite or telescope to see if the shuttle had large damage in tile areas. But a week later a lower-lever Johnson Space Center officials told the Defense Department not to bother looking. That decision should have been made at a higher level, O’Keefe said Thursday. ___ ‘copy 2003, The Miami Herald. Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.