Investigator rips NASA managers for rejecting shuttle images

NASA's senior shuttle managers and administrators "missed signals" when they rejected offers for satellite images of possible damage to Columbia's left wing days before its fatal return, the head of the investigating board told senators Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.

Remarks by retired Adm. Harold Gehman, chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, were a pointedly harsh assessment of the space agency's inaction during the 16-day shuttle mission.

Investigators believe breakaway insulating foam damaged part of Columbia's wing shortly after liftoff, allowing superheated air to penetrate the wing during its fiery re-entry on Feb. 1 and melt it from the inside.

The investigative board already had recommended that NASA push for better coordination between the space agency and military offices in charge of satellites and telescopes; the National Imagery and Mapping Agency in March agreed to regularly capture detailed satellite images of space shuttles in orbit.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said it was "infuriating" now to see how senior NASA managers decided against accepting offers for images of possible damage to the shuttle. He noted that, at the time, managers believed Columbia's safety was not at risk.

Gehman blamed NASA's system, not any individuals, and said there was "not one person responsible."

That assertion drew a rebuke from Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., who said it was "equally infuriating that no one is responsible." He added: "Those decisions aren't made by machines. Someone is responsible."

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