or three days after the space shuttle Columbia's liftoff, a
group of NASA engineers asked the shuttle program manager to
request the aid of United States spy satellites in determining
the extent of debris damage to the shuttle's left wing, but the
manager declined to do so, a senior NASA official said
The official said the satellites would "absolutely" have
helped the engineers measure any damage to the wing's protective
heat tiles from debris slamming into them about 81 seconds after
liftoff on Jan. 16.
He said Lambert Austin, an engineer at Johnson Space Center
in Houston, had asked Ron D. Dittemore, the shuttle program
manager, in a group meeting to obtain satellite images to help
gauge the damage. Mr. Dittemore turned down the request, even
though Mr. Austin was also speaking for several other engineers,
the official said.
Mr. Austin and his colleagues were disappointed, the official
said, especially because they believed Mr. Dittemore did not
have the technical knowledge of imagery to determine whether the
images would have been helpful.
Mr. Austin declined yesterday to comment.
Mr. Dittemore also would not comment, but a NASA spokesman
said yesterday that Mr. Dittemore and other officials had
decided that satellite images would not necessarily help
It is unclear how Mr. Austin's request was related to another
NASA request for imagery made around the same time to Defense
Department officials, and later withdrawn via an e-mail message,
which NASA publicly released last month.
The senior official also said some NASA engineers were now
questioning whether the debris actually came from the large
external fuel tank. The engineers are scrutinizing the solid
rocket boosters to see whether the debris could have originated
there, he said.
While the shuttle was in orbit, five
Boeing engineers concluded in
a report to NASA that the debris impact had not caused serious
damage based on the assumption, now perhaps faulty, that the
debris was a chunk of foam insulation from the external tank.
A central question in the investigation of the Columbia's
break-up on Feb. 1 is whether the National Aeronautics and Space
Agency and its contractors had enough information to accurately
assess the tile damage. Many experts say damage from the debris
may have weakened the wing and is the most obvious possible root
cause of the accident, though there are many suspects.
A reconnaissance satellite could have been used to capture
images of the tiles. Shortly after the Columbia accident, when
aerospace experts outside NASA asked why the agency had not
sought satellite assistance, Mr. Dittemore said such images
might not have been sharp enough.
But the senior NASA official, who agreed to talk on the
condition that his name not be used, said: "When a group of
engineers puts forward a request, they're not doing it for grins
and giggles. Within their minds, they thought that was a path
that would resolve some final concerns. I don't know if it was a
cost issue, a timing issue. I don't know if assets could not be
The official added, "If they had done that, we might know
It is unclear whether even a better determination of the tile
damage would have helped NASA bring the astronauts home safely.
James Hartsfield, a NASA spokesman, said yesterday that there
were discussions in the days after liftoff on whether to obtain
satellite imagery. Officials decided not to, he said, because
they were satisfied with the Boeing analysis and, as Mr.
Dittemore indicated, they questioned the usefulness of the
images that satellites would provide.
Mr. Hartsfield said someone at NASA did make an early request
for imagery to the Defense Department. But he said that request,
which "was not coordinated with the rest of the flight
operations world," was withdrawn by another NASA official, Roger
Mr. Hartsfield said he did not know who had made the request
to the Defense Department. The National Reconnaissance Office,
the government's main operator of spy satellites, is chartered
under the Defense Department. The senior NASA official familiar
with Mr. Austin's request said that as far as he knew, Mr.
Austin did not contact a department official directly and
dropped his request after Mr. Dittemore denied it.