NASA limits crew data to select few

It restricts details on how astronauts may have died

March 31, 2003|By Ralph Vartabedian | Ralph Vartabedian,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. -- Inside the hangar where NASA has collected wreckage from the space shuttle Columbia, engineers and scientists have put up a banner signed by dozens of school children, who wrote in large block letters, "We honor the crew of the Columbia."

Just behind that banner is a special room, where the National Aeronautics and Space Administration allows no visitors. It's where investigators keep the wreckage of the crew compartment and the astronauts' personal items.

Columbia burned up trying to re-enter Earth's atmosphere Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Searchers located their remains in Texas, and the crew was honored in memorial services across the country.

Nonetheless, NASA is closely holding information about how the astronauts might have died in the accident. At the hangar, senior investigators will say little about what's in the room.

Questions bring terse answers. And repeated questions bring sharp suggestions to back off.

On the hangar floor, investigators have laid out thousands of bits and pieces of the shuttle's underbelly in an effort to understand the forces that burned up the left wing.

"For people at the Kennedy Space Center, we love the orbiters," said Mike Leinbach, the engineer who is running the reconstruction investigation. "We feel we have lost a family member. It is hard to describe."

Even harder to deal with are the pieces that made up the shuttle's crew compartment. Leinbach said he allows only investigators with a direct need to know into the room that holds those pieces, and he rejects any discussion of what is inside, saying it would offend the astronauts' families. Asked by a Texas reporter how it would be offensive, Leinbach firmly replied, "We don't go here."

NASA clearly wants to do better after looking inept and brutally cold in its handling of the Challenger accident, which killed seven crew members in 1986.

"It is our effort to be hypersensitive to the families," said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel. "We got hammered after the Challenger."

In that accident, Navy search teams located the remains of the astronauts in the Atlantic Ocean and took them to Cape Canaveral by ship in the middle of the night. According to news accounts, NASA secretly transported the remains of several astronauts to an Air Force base in plastic bags placed in the back of a pickup truck.

This time around, the agency is trying to be more open and take a more dignified approach, agency officials say. Former astronaut Charles F. Bolden Jr. said he believes the agency is doing a better job, agreeing that it went overboard in its pursuit of secrecy during the Challenger operation.

"That's the way they were back then," Bolden said. "This time around, it was difficult to hide anything because you had the general public in the field participating in the search."

Although NASA will not allow reporters to view the crew compartment debris, it is open about showing the reconstruction work and helping reporters understand the process. By contrast, NASA showed the Challenger wreckage to the news media only once, and that was after the investigation ended.

Ralph Vartabedian is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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