Engineer Wanted Photos of Columbia Damage
WASHINGTON (AP) _ NASA’s chief shuttle engineer wrote in a draft e-mail days before Columbia’s fiery breakup that a failure to seek photographs of possible damage to the shuttle’s left wing was wrong and ``bordering on irresponsible,″ according to internal documents released Monday.
But Alan R. ``Rodney″ Rocha never sent the message to his colleagues at the space agency. In the draft, Rocha cautioned that severe enough damage to delicate insulating tiles near Columbia’s wheel compartment ``could present potentially grave hazards.″
Rocha’s draft e-mail, which NASA said was written around Jan. 22, was among hundreds of pages of internal documents NASA released Monday. News organizations had sought the documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
In separate e-mails, which Rocha sent, he said damage to Columbia could range from acceptable to horrible.
``We do not know yet the exact extent or nature of the damage without being provided better images, and without such all the high-powered analyses and assessments in work will retain significant uncertainties,″ Rocha wrote, also on Jan. 22.
One day earlier, in another message, Rocha noted that experts working to analyze possible damage faced uncertainties ``until we get definitive, better, clearer photos of the wing and body underside.″ He added, ``Can we petition (beg) for outside agency assistance?″
The response the following day, from NASA’s Paul Shack, was that higher-ups at NASA had decided they were ``not requesting any outside imaging help.″
In his draft e-mail, addressed to at least 14 NASA employees, Rocha noted safety posters throughout the agency imploring, ``If it’s not safe, say so.″ He concluded the message with a prophetic note about the seriousness of seeking images of possible damage to Columbia: ``It’s that serious.″
``The engineering team will admit it might not achieve definitive, high-confidence answers even with additional images,″ Rocha wrote, ``but without action to request help (and) clarify the damage visually, we will guarantee it will not.″
The e-mail came days before engineers for The Boeing Co., a NASA contractor, concluded that Columbia could return safely. Investigators believe superheated air penetrated Columbia’s left wing, which was struck 81 seconds after its Jan. 16 liftoff by a briefcase-sized chunk of insulating foam that broke away from the shuttle’s external fuel tank.
In other e-mails, Rocha wrote on the eve of Columbia’s breakup that he planned personally to monitor temperatures settings from inside mission control during the shuttle’s re-entry. He noted that teams of experts from NASA, Boeing and the United Space Alliance LLC had performed ``conservative analyses″ that concluded there were no safety concerns.
NASA officials have previously acknowledged they turned down an offer by the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency to have its satellites take pictures of the stricken shuttle, and NASA officials withdrew another unofficial request for Air Force telescopes to take pictures.
Last week, NASA announced the satellite agency has agreed to regularly capture detailed satellite images of space shuttles in orbit, amid persistent questions about why no such pictures were taken of possible damage to Columbia’s wing.