Independent panel surveys shuttle debris area

An independent government panel assembled to probe the space shuttle Columbia disaster surveyed the debris area over Texas for the first time Tuesday.

The panel, known as the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation Board, met for the first time Monday at Louisiana's Barksdale Air Force Base. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe Sunday appointed retired four-star Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., the Navy officer who led the investigation of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, to lead the group.

Gehman's board includes six military and federal officials with expertise in aircraft accidents and aerospace safety, and several senior officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Gehman retired in 2000 as head of the U.S. Joint Forces Command and was called back to be the top sleuth in the U.S.S. Cole investigation. His experience compiling facts will be valuable in the shuttle probe. "He is well-versed in understanding exactly how to go about looking into the forensics of any of these cases and coming up with the causal effects of what could occur," said O'Keefe.

The blunt-speaking, 60-year-old Gehman arrived in Louisiana Sunday with a dual mission, The Virginian-Pilot reported Monday. "We have one imperative to go very quickly and one to be very careful," the paper quoted Gehman as saying. Three astronauts still aboard the U.S.-led international space station are "depending on the space shuttle program" for supplies and a ride home, he continued.

Barksdale, at Shreveport, is one of three command posts NASA is setting up to oversee recovery and examination of debris that rained on a huge field of debris from south of Dallas to the Louisiana border when Columbia disintegrated as it descended to Earth Feb. 1. Some 12,000 pieces of debris, as small as a penny and as large as a compact car, have been sighted on ranches, in back yards and at school playgrounds.

Lufkin, Texas, is headquarters for space agency workers given the grim task of recovering remains of the seven astronauts-six Americans and one Israeli-who perished.

Carswell Air Force Base near Fort Worth, Texas, was designated a command post Monday, after search teams began finding wreckage from the winged spaceship much farther west than anticipated. There were possible debris sightings as far west as Phoenix, Ariz. Both Carswell and Barksdale will house debris until NASA decides where its final resting place will be.

The panel will try to determine not only what brought the $2 billion orbiter down just 16 minutes before its scheduled landing in Florida, but also what NASA practices and policies-if any-contributed to the second fatal accident in the 22-year history of shuttle flights. The first was the launch failure of the shuttle Challenger, which killed seven astronauts in 1986.

In addition to Gehman's board, NASA is also conducting an internal probe into the Columbia accident, while Congress has launched its own investigation into the matter. Gehman's board will obtain many of its facts from a three-tiered investigation whose structure is based on recommendations made by the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger disaster. It involves hundreds of people from federal, state and local governments and law enforcement.

Making up the lowest tier of Gehman's panel are 20 field teams of experts working on the investigation. The largest is an interagency group combining the forces of NASA-including astronauts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Defense Department, and state and local law enforcement. NASA estimates some 600 people have been mobilized, including about 150 of its own.

Other smaller field teams include engineering experts who are sifting through data on a variety of shuttle subsystems looking for anything that hints at a cause.

The field teams report to a mishap response team led by the space shuttle program office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. It, in turn, reports to a contingency action team at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. All teams support the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

"We are very organized, very supportive of each other and working together very well," Ron Dittemore, the Houston-based shuttle program chief said.

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