The independent board charged with determining what caused the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the loss of its seven astronauts began its work today at the Johnson Space Center, Houston. Recovery teams continued to search for debris from California to Louisiana.
Under the leadership of retired Navy admiral Harold Gehman, Jr., the Columbia Accident Board received a briefing from Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore. The board began the process of gathering material collected since Columbia's breakup during reentry just 16 minutes before landing on Feb 1.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe reaffirmed the Board will act as a "totally independent entity in assessing all of the factors" associated with Columbia's loss. Administrator O'Keefe added, "We will be guided by the findings of the Board."
As search teams looked for debris for hundreds of miles throughout the west, the southwest and the Gulf Coast, O'Keefe said he met with the International Space Station Partners today following the memorial ceremony for Columbia's astronauts at Washington's National Cathedral attended by Vice-President Cheney. O'Keefe said the Partners expressed their support for the recovery effort and NASA's vow to find the cause for the accident for the resumption of safe flight operations.
O'Keefe indicated that Admiral Gehman may consider adding another member or members to the Independent Board that have no affiliation or ties to NASA in further strengthening its charter. The Charter is available on line at: http://www.nasa.gov/columbia/board_documents.pdf
O'Keefe will appear before a joint hearing of the Senate and House Science Committees, Wednesday, Feb. 12, to provide details of the progress of the investigation.
In his afternoon briefing, Dittemore described the pace of the inquiry and data and debris collection as "fast and furious." He said the Shuttle program would support Admiral Gehman's Board "in any way we can".
Dittemore said more than 1000 pieces of Shuttle debris have been recovered. Items found as far west as California are currently being analyzed to see whether they are from Columbia. As of today, no debris found west of Fort Worth, Texas, has been positively identified as coming from Columbia.
"No possibility is being ruled out as the root cause for Columbia's loss," Dittemore said. "We are still looking for that elusive missing link." Dittemore said bad weather in the west today hampered efforts to recover additional debris. The forecast calls for improving conditions by the weekend.
The recovered debris will be analyzed at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., before being returned to the Kennedy Space Center for reconstruction of Columbia, to the extent possible, and final disposition.
Dittemore added a fault tree is being developed, based on existing Probability Risk Assessments. He said the investigation team has received a large number of still images and video, which are being examined to determine if they are authentic and if they can shed light on the investigation.
At the memorial service at National Cathedral, Cheney said of Columbia's astronauts, "They were soldiers and scientists and doctors and pilots, but above all they were explorers." "They were envoys to the unknown," Cheney added. "They advanced human understanding by showing human courage."
Aboard the Station, Expedition 6 Commander Ken Bowersox, Flight Engineer Nikolai Budarin and NASA Science Officer Don Pettit continued to unload the Russian Progress resupply ship that docked Tuesday.
Payload controllers continued to analyze the new power components installed yesterday in the Microgravity Science Glovebox in the Destiny laboratory to try to determine why a circuit breaker popped after it was powered on by Pettit. The science facility remains off while the troubleshooting effort is underway.
On Friday, a memorial ceremony for Columbia's astronauts will be held at the Kennedy Space Center. Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Administrator O'Keefe and former astronaut Robert Crippen, Columbia's first pilot on STS-1, April 12, 1981, will attend. The ceremony will be live on NASA Television at 8:15 a.m. EST, the exact time of Columbia's deorbit burn last Saturday.
The next STS-107 Accident Response briefings will be on Friday at 4:30 p.m. EST from the Johnson Space Center. It will be on NASA TV, with multi-center question and answer capability for reporters at NASA centers.
NASA TV is on AMC-2, Transponder 9C, vertical polarization at 85 degrees west longitude, 3880 MHz, with audio at 6.8 MHz.
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