Two 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 U.S. 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 yesterday.
The official told the New York Times the satellites would "absolutely" have helped the engineers measure damage to the wing's heat tiles from debris slamming into them some 81 seconds after liftoff Jan. 16.
He said that Lambert Austin, an engineer at Johnson Space Center, asked Ron D. Dittemore, the shuttle program manager, in a group meeting to get satellite images to help gauge the damage. Dittemore turned down the request, even though Austin was also speaking for several other engineers, the official said.
Austin and his colleagues were disappointed, the official said, especially because they believed Dittemore did not have the technical knowledge to determine whether the images would have been helpful.
Austin declined to comment yesterday. Dittemore also would not comment, but a NASA spokesman said yesterday that Dittemore and other officials decided that satellite images would not necessarily help determine damage.
It is unclear how Austin's request was related to another NASA request for imagery made about the same time to defense officials, and later withdrawn via an e-mail message, which NASA publicly released last month.
The senior official also said that some NASA engineers were now questioning whether the debris actually came from the large external fuel tank, according to the Times. The engineers are scrutinizing the solid rocket boosters to see if debris could have originated there, he added.
While the shuttle was in orbit, five Boeing engineers concluded in a report to NASA that the debris had not caused serious damage based on the assumption - now perhaps faulty - that the debris was foam insulation from the external tank.
A central question in the investigation of Columbia's breakup Feb. 1 is whether NASA and its contractors had all the information they needed to assess the tile damage accurately. Many experts say the debris may have weakened the wing and is the most obvious possible root cause of the accident.
Shortly after the Columbia accident, when aerospace experts outside NASA asked why the agency did not seek satellite assistance, Dittemore said such images might not have been sharp enough.
But "when a group of engineers puts forward a request, they're not doing it for grins and giggles," said the senior NASA official, who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity. "Within their minds, they thought that was a path that would resolve some final concerns."
Meanwhile, another source told Knight Ridder newspapers yesterday that NASA had for years ignored recommendations to cover shuttle wings while the craft sits on the launch pad to prevent a problem that investigators now think may have contributed to the destruction of Columbia.
Top researchers inside and outside the space agency had suggested draping the equivalent of a painters drop cloth over the shuttle's wings to protect them from Cape Canaveral's corrosive sea air and prevent pinholes from forming on the edges of the wings.
Those pinholes, about as wide as three human hairs, began to appear on the leading edges of shuttle wings in 1992, first in Columbia, then other shuttles.
Columbia broke apart at the end of its 28th flight, and it had suffered far more pinholes than any other shuttle, according to NASA technical reports.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board is looking at the pinholes as a possible contributing cause of last month's tragedy, board member Maj. Gen. John Barry said Tuesday.
Investigators are trying to find the cause of a breach in Columbia's left wing that allowed hot gas into the shuttle as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere, starting the fatal break-up.