Retired Navy admiral who probed Cole bombing will head independent panel on Colombia space accident

By PAULINE JELINEK

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - A retired Navy admiral who investigated the

USS Cole bombing will head the independent probe into the space

shuttle Columbia, drawing on the expertise of military and civilian

aviation experts.

NASA and a House committee plan their own investigations, and

the Senate will hold hearings about why the Columbia disintegrated

over Texas on Saturday morning, killing its seven astronauts.

Retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. went on Sunday to Barksdale

Air Force Base in Louisiana, where the panel was meeting for the

first time Monday. It will search for a cause and offer

recommendations, a federal official said.

Other commission members include active duty Air Force and Navy

brass, civilian transportation and aviation officials and NASA

leaders in engineering and mission safety.

"We're going to find out what led to this, retrace all the

events . . . and leave absolutely no stone unturned," said NASA

Administrator Sean O'Keefe.

He described the commission as "an independent objective

board" and said Gehman is "well versed in understanding exactly

how to look about the forensics in these cases and coming up with

the causal effects of what could occur."

The chairman of the House Science Committee, which oversees

NASA, said the agency's investigation will focus more on technical

aspects. "We have to be concerned about the policy aspects and

what is the future of human space flight," said Rep. Sherwood

Boehlert, R-N.Y.

Hearings are expected in the Senate Commerce, Science and

Transportation Committee, said Sen. Sam Brownback, chairman of the

subcommittee on science, technology and space.

"The key issue for us in Congress is why did it happen, how did

it happen, how do we fix it and then how do we project on forward

with manned space flight," said Brownback, R-Kan.

Gehman, 60, was educated as an industrial engineer. His first

tour of duty was as a propulsion assistant and damage control

assistant aboard the USS English. He ended his career as commander

in chief of U.S. Joint Forces Command, retiring a month before the

Cole bombing on Oct. 12, 2000.

"This panel is charged with a most difficult task, but I am

confident in their ability, their integrity, and their dedication

to doing what's right," O'Keefe said. "Their findings will help

push America's space program successfully into the future."

The Cole was refueling in Aden harbor in Yemen when a small boat

sidled up to the 505-foot destroyer and detonated a load of

explosives. The blast ripped a hole 40 feet high and 40 feet wide

in the hull of the $1 billion warship and killed 17 sailors.

It was the first time terrorists had successfully attacked a

U.S. Navy ship, and the Cole commission said in its report in

January 2001 that the bombers had found a "seam in the fabric" of

the Navy's system of self-protection.

NASA said the other members of the commission, called the Space

Shuttle Mishap Interagency Investigation Board, were:

-Rear Admiral Stephen Turcotte, commander, U.S. Naval Safety

Center, Norfolk, Va.

-Maj. Gen. John L. Barry, director, plans and programs,

headquarters Air Force Materiel Command, Wright-Patterson Air Force

Base, Ohio

-Maj. Gen. Kenneth W. Hess, commander, Air Force chief of

safety, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

-James N. Hallock, aviation safety division chief,

Transportation Department.

-Steven B. Wallace, director of accident investigation, Federal

Aviation Administration.

-Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, commander, 21st Space Wing, Peterson Air

Force Base, Colo.

-G. Scott Hubbard, director at NASA's Ames Research Center,

Moffett Field, Calif.

-ex-officio member and former astronaut Bryan D. O'Connor,

NASA's associate administrator from the Office of Safety and

Mission Assurance.

-panel executive-secretary Theron Bradley Jr., NASA's chief

engineer from agency headquarters in Washington.

In NASA's own review, debris was being brought to Barksdale,

where a team from various NASA centers, the FBI and the Federal

Emergency Management Agency assembled. Other federal agencies were

assisting.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said some of the

congressional work will go over some of the same issues reviewed

after the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger.

Those include NASA's budget, its aging work force and the

shuttle fleet.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

AP-NY-02-02-03 1623EST