NASA Vows to Find Reason for Accident

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said today on ABCNEWS' This Week that all space shuttle flights would be put on hold until officials determine what caused Columbia to break up on Saturday. Following is a transcript of his remarks.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me just begin by offering all of our condolences to you and the entire NASA family.

SEAN O'KEEFE: Thank you, George. We're — it's been a tragic day for the NASA family and particularly for the families of the crew of Columbia, and one that is positively — we have assured them we are going to find out what were the events that led to this particular accident and find out what the causes were for their sake as well as all of the public, as part of our responsibility in this particular case.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk about that. I want to focus in first on that crucial seven minutes. I guess the Columbia lost — you first saw some problems at 8:53. You saw some of the temperatures start to change on the left wing, and then the Columbia lost contact at 9 o'clock.

What more do we know today about what happened in those seven minutes?

O'KEEFE: Well, we're looking at every possible angle of what could have occurred at that time. There are a lot of different elements that went into this, and we're trying to make sure that we leave none of them unturned. So we're in the middle of developing and looking at all the facts that led to this event and trying to determine the cause of the accident.

We've appointed an independent as well as an internal board of investigation. And the internal board is gathering the evidence now. We're securing all the debris and being sure that we have a full understanding of exactly what could have occurred here. We've frozen all the information that occurred within a half an hour after the landing was to have occurred.

In addition to that, we've also empaneled a independent, objective board led by Adm.l Hal Gehman, who you may recall was the gentleman who presided over the USS Cole investigation three years ago. So he is well versed in understanding exactly how to go about looking at the forensics of any of these cases and coming up with the causal effects of what could occur.

He will be arriving along with a team in Shreveport, Louisiana, later this afternoon. There is a NASA investigation team as well as other federal agencies who are already on the ground and have been since early afternoon, midafternoon yesterday, staging out of Barksdale Air Force Base and along the east Texas area.

So that full process is under way right now. We're going to find out what led to this, retrace all the steps that were involved in all the events from the time we lost communication with them at or about 9 Eastern time yesterday morning, and leave absolutely no stone unturned in that process.

STEPHANOPOULOS: From what you know now, is there anything that the crew or Mission Control could have done to prevent this?

O'KEEFE: There's — we work every single launch as if it was a standalone, single, unique event, and we absolutely looked at every single element that we thought could possibly contribute to a compromise of safety on this mission like we do every other one.

So there is absolutely no easy indication of what could have been awry. That's what the internal investigation's all about. We're going to find out what was the cause of this, and we're going to make sure there's an independent, objective group who can help us come to that conclusion of exactly what was there and get on with flying again.

There is a — there are three people aboard International Space Station today, two astronauts and a cosmonaut, who are depending upon us to constantly keep this effort alive.

So we're going to find out what caused this. We're going to make sure we correct it, whatever it was.

We're going to leave absolutely nothing to chance in trying to determine what could have been the effect, make the fix, and get back to what we need in order to support the very brave astronauts that are aboard International Space Station today, but in the memory of the crew of STS-107, the Columbia crew, because that's exactly what they would have wanted.

And that's certainly what the families of the crew have told me that they expect, is us to continue this quest, and the exploration objectives that we've always been about.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm going to ask you about those three crew members on the space station in a moment. But first, you said yesterday that there was no indication that this was caused by anyone or anything on the ground. Is that still true today?


STEPHANOPOULOS: So you've ruled out ...

O'KEEFE: Yes, I mean, everything we can determine. We lost communication at or about 207,000 feet as the orbiter was completing reentry, traveling at about, you know, Mach 18. And so the likelihood or probability of anything that could have been perpetrated from the ground is extremely low.

But again, we're going to make sure that there is no possible possibility or any other theory that could be left to chance.

And that's a lot of the reason, too, we've also empaneled this independent, objective external review board to make sure that's the case, and led by a guy who's got some experience in that area, just to make sure that there is positively no theory that's left unexplored to find out exactly what it is that caused this terrible tragedy, so we can tell the crew's family, these courageous people who have really been unbelievable, inspiring, in the way they have handled this and worked through it.

We owe that to them to tell them exactly what happened, and we're going to make sure it's done above board, objectively, and as — with all the facts on the table.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So it's almost impossible that this was hit by a missile or any kind of a terrorist (inaudible) like that. But have you had any indications, or have you ruled out the possibility of sabotage from the inside?

O'KEEFE: Haven't ruled anything out. But there's just no indication at all at this juncture of any predominant theory of what could be out there. So again, that's part of the reason we're in the middle of this investigation. It's way early in this process. We're going to make sure we look at every possible piece of evidence to determine what could possibly have caused this horrific accident.

And we're going to find out what it is, and we're going to find out what exactly contributed to this and correct it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Most of the focus has been on those heat tiles, some of which were knocked off on takeoff. What more can you tell us about that today?

O'KEEFE: Well, again, this — that's one of the earliest indications, it's one of the areas we're looking at first, early, to make sure that the investigative team is concentrating on that theory or that set of facts as we are starting to unfold.

But there's so many elements that we're beginning to see more about as we examine the debris and the wreckage that is — spreads over a span of about 500 miles.

So as a consequence, we're right now in the methodical process of sequestering that, securing that evidence, being sure that all of our experts and other federal agencies who are participating, and there are many who are helping out, and it's been absolutely incredible to see the local law enforcement, state law enforcement from Louisiana as well as Texas, who are helping us make sure that we gather all the evidence to find out exactly what did happen.

So we're ruling nothing out at this stage, and we're not really concentrating on any one theory vs. another. We're looking at every possible permutation of what could have caused this.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What happens now to those three crew members we just talked about up on the space station? They were scheduled to be picked up, I understand, by the space shuttle Atlantis that was supposed to leave on March 1. Is that mission still on?

O'KEEFE: Well, as it stands right now, we're put the shuttle flights on hold until we've found out what was the cause of this accident. Once we find out what that cause was, and once we correct that, we're going to fly again.

And at present, matter of fact, our — the scheduled flight that was due to take off did, this morning, that our Russian partners in the International Space Station were planning and had sponsored, which is an unmanned flight that is full of logistics and resupply material for the International Space Station. That was part of the normal scheduling. It was due to take off today, and it did, and it's on its way to International Space Station.

That'll sustain the crew there for some time ahead. And we've talked to the crew. They are in good spirits. They understand exactly what the focus is, why we're trying to figure out what we're doing, and they know we're worried about them, and they know we're focused on making sure they're fully supported, and that as early as we can possibly get back there to rotate that crew and to send — bring them back home and send a new crew up, that's exactly what we're going to do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So how much time …

O'KEEFE: And to make sure we do it safely, like we do every single flight. We're dedicated to that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So how much time are we talking about? How long can they stay up there?

O'KEEFE: It's certainly — the current resupply material is going to extend them through at least early summer, late spring. Again, we were planning on sending a flight, as you mentioned, in early March. We'll see what the results of this investigation are. If we can ascertain the source of this particular problem, what caused it, and we can correct it, or determine exactly whether it's operationally possible to fly safely, that's our first and foremost objective each and every time.

We're going to get up there as soon as we possibly can to assure that they're brought back home safely as well.

So we've got time, we've got an opportunity, I think, to sustain them for what they need, but we're always focused on making sure we recognize that we've got focus on — and people are depending on us to make sure we concentrate on this.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Two quick questions, sir. Are you open to having the Russians bring them home? And finally, how are the families holding up?

O'KEEFE: Well, I — let me touch on the second point. The families are absolutely unbelievable. They're the most courageous people you would ever, ever want to meet. They're inspiring.

And working through the challenges that they did in the last 24 hours, they are a study of just human strength. They're amazing people.

So they've done it remarkably well. We are making sure they are supported with everything they possibly could need. And we're pleading with the press, as a matter of fact, to respect their privacy. We'd appreciate it if you'd pass that on. And they are being very, very diligent about what's going on. They want to be informed. We're keeping them informed on all the facts of the case.

And it's going as well as you could ever expect in a tragic circumstance like this. But a very impressive group of people.

Our Russian friends, to your first part, positively, they are supportive of what we do, and we're working with them every day to assure that they know exactly what the events were, and making sure that we support the crew of the International Space Station completely.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. O'Keefe, thank you very much for taking this time at what I know is a very difficult time for you. Thank you.