Military satellites will routinely take pictures of space shuttles on future flights, under a new agreement between NASA and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief Sean O'Keefe said Friday that the debate over whether agency officials should have pursued such photos of the doomed shuttle Columbia persuaded him to make the change.
"The fact is, we'll never end up settling this debate because we don't have it [photos]. We've decided to remedy the ambiguity," O'Keefe said. "This is a very clear statement -- whenever you have the opportunity, please take it."
Under the agreement, the satellites will take pictures of the shuttle when the opportunity arises during a flight, O'Keefe said. If there is a particular problem that NASA is worried about, he said, the agency will make a specific, more urgent request.
O'Keefe said he is working on forging a similar arrangement with the Air Force, which has ground telescopes capable of zeroing in on the shuttle in orbit.
During Columbia's 16-day mission, NASA officials considered asking for pictures of the damage done by a chunk of foam that flew off the shuttle's external tank and hit the orbiter's left wing during launch. William Readdy, the agency's top spaceflight official, was even contacted by NIMA through a colleague, asking whether NASA wanted the pictures.
Ultimately -- banking on a Boeing Co. analysis that the foam damage was not severe enough to threaten the shuttle's thermal-protection system -- Readdy and others did not seek the photos, reasoning that there was not enough danger to warrant turning the satellites away from their regular work.
O'Keefe said the new agreement is about eliminating administrative hurdles, not a reflection of his opinion about whether NASA should have pushed harder for the photos.
"It really is a judgment call all the way through this," O'Keefe said. "I am not ever engaging in 'shoulda, coulda, wouldas.' The fact is, everybody worked this by the rules. And the rules were, in this case, not evident as being an impediment, but proved to be more cumbersome than they needed to be. It's now going to be easier."
The independent board probing the Feb. 1 accident is looking at NASA's procedures for obtaining images of the shuttle, and O'Keefe's announcement appears to be another attempt to get out in front of recommendations the board is expected to make when it finishes its investigation. NASA is already working on identifying other issues that must be addressed before the three remaining orbiters can return to flight, including potential changes to the external tank and its foam insulation.
John Pike, a space analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank, said it's obvious that O'Keefe is paying close attention to what's being reported by the board and the media.
"I think that some of this stuff is sufficiently obvious that it does not require a certified accident-investigation report in order to take some initiative on," Pike said.
Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the investigation board, said the issue of photos would certainly be part of the board's report.
"It may be slightly different than what NASA has done," Brown said. "The board has its own thoughts on how imaging can be handled, and they'll address that in their recommendation."
O'Keefe's announcement also came a few days in advance of Monday's expected release of a slew of e-mails among engineers at Johnson Space Center leading up to and during Columbia's last mission. Among the discussions in the documents, he said, are conversations about whether NASA should seek photos of the wing damage.
The Orlando Sentinel reported last week, citing NASA sources, that some shuttle engineers wanted to make a request, and that there were discussions with the military about the query.
But Linda Ham, head of the Mission Management Team, which oversees the shuttle during its flight, reportedly killed the request Jan. 22, for reasons that remain unclear.
Since the accident, one of the reasons NASA officials have given for not pushing for the photos is because they weren't sure the images would have been clear or detailed enough to reveal the damage done by the foam strike.
"The quality of what's there and what can be available isn't anything like what a [Tom] Clancy novel would have you believe," O'Keefe said Friday.
Pike said the NIMA satellites could probably take a photo that would show whether a single thermal tile was missing. However, some of the other theories of what caused the shuttle to break up -- including a cracked or otherwise damaged reinforced carbon-carbon panel on the wing's leading edge -- would not be visible from such a photo, he said.
"There are some catastrophic failures of the thermal-protection system that these satellites would certainly see; there are other catastrophic failure scenarios that have been hypothesized that these satellites would certainly not see," Pike said. "But I think in terms of a better-safe-than-sorry, putting-safety-first approach, it certainly makes sense to do this."
Pike added that while the satellites are busy with their military and intelligence work, it's highly likely that there would be numerous chances for the satellites to shoot pictures of the shuttle on future missions.
"They're probably not going to be looking at the shuttle while they're flying over Iraq," Pike said. "On the other hand, there's plenty of time when they would be flying over areas that would be cloudy or flying over open ocean, when in principle there should be an opportunity to go look at the shuttle."
Gwyneth K. Shaw can be reached at 202-824-8229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.