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Shuttle investigation gives airmen knowledge

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Aug. 11, 2003) -- Following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in February, NASA officials activated a 13-member board to determine the cause of the accident.

Three of those board members are bluesuiters. They said they believe some of the lessons learned while working with NASA can be brought back with them to the Air Force.

"There is a lot of process, surveillance and inspection ... issues involved in how NASA does its business that I know we will bring back to how we do business in the Air Force," said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hess, Air Force chief of safety.

The airmen may also bring back to the Air Force some of the technical expertise regarding the aging process of space vehicles, according to officials. Unlike the Air Force, which uses an expendable launch vehicle, NASA uses a reusable launch vehicle -- the space shuttle.

The effect of aging on the shuttle provides valuable information for future Air Force development projects according to another board member.

"Just as we have aging aircraft, there are aging spacecraft," said Maj. Gen. John Barry, director of plans and programs at Air Force Materiel Command. "We are learning a lot of things on aging, and those things will eventually be applied ... as we start building the space maneuvering vehicles and space operating vehicles of the future. Those kinds of lessons ... will be instrumental in helping the military develop these vehicles of the future."

While the Air Force will take home some valuable information as a result of its participation on the board, it also brings to the table some valuable Air Force corporate knowledge.

"I've participated in a dozen investigations, including both aircraft and spacecraft," said Brig. Gen. Duane W. Deal, 21st Space Wing commander. "(Another) thing we bring to the (Columbia Accident Investigation Board) is aviation experience, particularly with the support staff we brought in."

While the support staff used by board members are not strictly part of the board, their expertise and contributions were important to the investigation, according to officials.

Deal said as many as 12 airmen and six Air Force civilians have assisted during the investigation. This includes people from the Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., an engineer from the Air Force Academy and researchers skilled in metallurgy, thermodynamics and design issues from Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

NASA officials said they did not plan for the space-shuttle program to last beyond 10 years, but the project has been going on now for more than 20, with plans to go on even longer. The Air Force has years of experience in dealing with and extending the life of aging aircraft. Some of that knowledge, Barry said, can be transferred to NASA.

"There are a lot of lessons that the Air Force has learned about aging aircraft that can be applied here," Barry said.

While technical knowledge is important in determining the cause of the Columbia accident, the board is doing more than that, Deal said.

"Our most important (job) was ... to help prevent (another) accident," he said. "That involves looking at the entire shuttle system and components and seeing what type of problems they have."

Some of those problems, Deal said, involve chains of communication within NASA.

"The good news is that the Air Force already does (those) things very well," he said. "We have good communication between the various systems. If one wing in the Air Force has a problem with an F-16 (Fighting Falcon), every other wing that works with F-16s will hear about it almost instantaneously.

The final decision of the board concerning the cause of the Columbia accident will be in the board's final report, which will be released Aug. 26.