COLUMBIA DISASTER Official: No early signs of danger

The NASA chief assured the congressional hearing that an investigative panel would remain independent.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- In the first congressional hearing into the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, NASA's top official is telling lawmakers that during the orbiter's 16-day mission, it exhibited no problems that suggested the crew's lives were threatened.
Sean O'Keefe, who recently took over as head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, also offers assurances in testimony prepared for delivery today that investigators will discover the cause of the accident that killed seven astronauts and that a review board will operate without interference from NASA insiders.
Vowing to continue
Describing himself as "saddened beyond words" about the Feb. 1 destruction of the shuttle as it returned to Earth, O'Keefe says the space agency is committed to future flights but does not know when they can resume. He says NASA's schedule for shuttle missions -- which anticipated five flights starting in fiscal 2004 -- will be "adjusted as needed once we determine when we can return to flight."
"We know the lesson from this terrible accident is not to turn our backs on exploration simply because it is too hard or risky," O'Keefe says. A draft of his prepared remarks was obtained by The Associated Press.
In his testimony, O'Keefe said that during the 16-day mission, "we had no indications that would suggest a compromise to flight safety."
O'Keefe did not speculate in his prepared testimony about what might have caused Columbia to disintegrate over Texas, and he offered few details about the directions investigators might be considering.
Panel's independence
Lawmakers from the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Science subcommittee on space have indicated they would press O'Keefe about whether a review board appointed to investigate the Columbia accident will be sufficiently independent.
"You have our assurance that this distinguished board will be able to act with genuine independence," O'Keefe planned to tell lawmakers.
O'Keefe called the board's members -- led by retired Navy Adm. Hal Gehman -- "some of the best in the world at what they do," adding that they have been involved in 50 major investigations among them. They began meeting within 30 hours of Columbia's loss, he said.
O'Keefe has fought to keep the Columbia investigation out of the hands of a presidential commission, such as the one that investigated the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Within hours of the Columbia accident, he activated the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, an organization selected by NASA that O'Keefe maintains is independent.
He pledged that investigators will solve the mystery of Columbia's loss.
"We will find the problem that caused the loss of Columbia and its crew, we will fix it, and we will return to flight operations that are as safe as humanly possible in pursuit of knowledge," O'Keefe said.

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