Military to share satellite images of orbiting shuttles with NASA

Discovery lands
Discovery in space
STS-121 shuttle
Shuttle Discovery missions
WASHINGTON - The military has agreed to a NASA request to regularly capture detailed satellite images of space shuttles in orbit, amid persistent questions about why no such pictures were taken of possible damage to Columbia.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe announced yesterday the agreement with the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency to use the agency's spy satellites "during targets of opportunity" without NASA having to make specific requests for such images.

O'Keefe described the agreement as saying in effect, "When you have the opportunity, please take it. We'll either use [the images] to great effect or autograph them and send them back."

The disclosure was a pre-emptive public-relations strike against hundreds of pages of internal NASA e-mails the space agency plans to release publicly early next week.

Some of those e-mails, already turned over to the board investigating the Feb. 1 disaster, describe some NASA employees as pleading for surveillance images during Columbia's mission to help determine whether the shuttle could return safely, O'Keefe said.

Investigators believe superheated air penetrated Columbia's left wing, which was struck 81 seconds after liftoff by a briefcase-sized chunk of insulating foam that broke away from the shuttle's external fuel tank.

The investigating board has already indicated that it will recommend NASA push for better coordination between the space agency and military offices in charge of satellites and telescopes.

The deal disclosed yesterday will make available to NASA, free or at very low cost, detailed pictures of the shuttle during future missions, even though it remains unclear how useful such images might be. Each of the shuttle's delicate insulating tiles, for example, is about 3 inches wide.

The deal was formalized in a letter sent earlier this week from O'Keefe to Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper, the director of NIMA.

NASA is still working out details about which of its employees will have adequate security clearances to view the sensitive images that the military's top satellites might take of shuttles.

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