Originally created 03/07/03

Investigation board holds first public hearing on shuttle accident



HOUSTON -- An engineer whose team of experts found flaws in the safety and operations of the space shuttle program was among four witnesses called to testify at the first public hearing of the Columbia accident investigation board.

Henry McDonald, the former head of the Ames Research Center, was expected to speak Thursday about his team's 2000 report conclusions that budget and staffing cuts had forced NASA to turn over too much of its safety oversight to outside contractors - and that safety was being superseded by schedule and cost-cutting.

In the report by McDonald and his team, the experts said far more than half of the jobs in preparing shuttles for launch and monitoring the missions are performed by contractors.

The hearing is the first of a series called by retired Adm. Harold Gehman, the accident investigation board chairman. Gehman said the board would have public hearings twice a week for two out of every three weeks until the probe is concluded.

Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore also has been called as witness before the board. Dittemore became a well-known figure while giving daily televised news conferences during the first week following the Feb. 1 Columbia accident. His appearances stopped when the Gehman board took control of the investigation.

Jefferson Davis Howell Jr., a combat pilot in Vietnam who retired as a Marine lieutenant general and is now the director of the Johnson Space Center, also was to testify.

The board also was to hear from Keith Chong, an engineer for Boeing in Huntington Beach, Calif., one of the major space shuttle contractors. Chong is an expert on foam insulation used on the external fuel tank of the space shuttle.

"We're going to get a little bit of the theory of foam before we start going into who did what to whom and whether it was done correctly," Gehman said.

One theory of the accident is that Columbia's left wing was damaged during its Jan. 16 launch when pieces of foam insulation peeled off the external tank as the shuttle streaked toward orbit. A group of Boeing engineers later evaluated the possible damage to Columbia's thermal protection from the insulation and concluded, while the spacecraft was still in orbit, any tile damage caused by the insulation did not endanger the shuttle.

Columbia broke apart during re-entry, killing its seven crew members. Experts say it appears likely that searing plasma, air heated to more than 2,500 degrees by the friction of re-entry, somehow penetrated the wing's interior and caused aluminum supports to soften and fail. In theory, broken thermal tiles could allow re-entry heat to get inside the wing. Board officials said some recovered tiles bear sooty deposits of melted aluminum

The hearing Thursday was set for a 500-seat auditorium at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, near the Johnson Space Center. It continues the board pattern of holding public events near, but not on, NASA grounds, an apparent demonstration of the board's independence of the space agency. Other hearings are expected near the Kennedy Space Center and in Washington.

Gehman's announcement about the frequency of the planned public hearings surprised even those on the board support staff.

"He wants his process to be open to the public," explained the Federal Aviation Administration's Laura Brown, the board's spokeswoman.

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