NASA expert, native: ‘This is an awful day’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 2, 2003

News of the Columbia disaster hit Americans hard &045; but aside from NASA staff and the astronauts’ families themselves, perhaps none so much as former astronaut Richard Truly.

Truly, a Fayette native who served as NASA’s administrator from 1989 to 1992, piloted the space shuttle Columbia’s second flight and also served as commander of a space shuttle Challenger mission.

And as associate administrator of NASA’s Office of Space Flight, Truly led the investigation into Challenger’s 1986 explosion.

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Unlike the fateful Challenger flight, when he knew all of the astronauts well, Truly said all of Columbia’s current astronauts came to NASA after his departure. Still, Saturday’s news was traumatic for Truly.

&uot;My heart goes out to all the (astronauts’) families and to the NASA family,&uot; Truly said from his home in Golden, Colo., where he watched news of the flight on television Saturday morning.

&uot;This is an awful day. The biggest issue is just finding out what happened but, at this point, it’s a mystery.&uot;

Teams of investigators, both NASA and external, do have a wealth of information from the agency’s Mission Control to guide them in their probe of the incident, including the shuttle’s &uot;black box.&uot;

&uot;What condition (the box) is going to be in, who knows? It’s something that happened very quickly, so I’m not sure what that will show,&uot; Truly said. &uot;But mission control also has a lot of data.&uot;

Truly does not have inside knowledge of the Columbia probe and does not want to speculate on how long the investigation could take.

&uot;It could take weeks to months,&uot; Truly said. &uot;The Challenger accident investigation took from January to the end of May.

&uot;But earlier than that, we found the root cause. Once you’ve found that, even though the investigation itself is not complete, you can begin to figure it out.&uot;

During the next few days, investigators will certainly look at a series of events that happened in the moments leading up to the disaster.

Those moments will likely include the point when the sensors started to go out, for example, and when the shuttle’s wheel wells starting to register high temperatures.

From his experience with shuttle flights, Truly knew that at that point in Columbia’s descent, the astronauts had little to do but to watch the data relayed to them by mission control.

&uot;If they have to take over (flying), they can,&uot; Truly said. &uot;But most of the reentry is automatic, with computers controlling the shuttle.&uot;

Another thing Truly knows is that, with his close friend and colleague Shaun O’Keefe as NASA administrator, the investigation will be conducted thoroughly.

&uot;I’m very confident about their leadership,&uot; Truly said. &uot;They have some clues. And they’ll find out what happened.&uot;