Spaceflight Now

Plan calls for shuttles to be imaged by spy satellites
Posted: March 29, 2003

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency, one of the government organizations that sets targets for spy satellites, has agreed to routinely inspect space shuttles in orbit for signs of possible damage.

In a March 25 letter to NIMA Director James Clapper, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe wrote that he appreciated NIMA's "willingness to add our requirements to your routine operations."

"Thank you very much for the briefing that you and your staff presented to us at NASA on March 13, 2003," O'Keefe wrote. "We appreciate your offer of close cooperation regarding the use of NIMA assets relative to future space shuttle operations.

"As agreed during that session, we deeply appreciate your intention to make available the products of NIMA assets on a routine basis, without specific tasking from NASA. This will be very helpful as we continually assess the condition of the shuttle during on-orbit operations. Significantly, your willingness to employ NIMA assets during targets of opportunity without specific tasking will be another useful source of information to help us assess the potential for on-orbit anomalies."

The issue of shuttle imagery was discussed in the days following Columbia's launch because of concern about possible damage to the ship's left wing following impact by foam debris during launch. But senior NASA managers ultimately decided not to request any spy satellite or ground-based imagery of the spacecraft based on an analysis that concluded the shuttle was not in any danger.

That decision has been the subject of second-guessing and criticism in the wake of the disaster. In the days after the mishap, shuttle program manager Ronald Dittemore said no request for satellite imagery was made because the resolution of the imagery, based on past NASA experience, would not be high enough to reveal damage to individual tiles and because the damage assessment, carried out by Boeing, had concluded Columbia could land safely.

During Columbia's mission, however, Wayne Hale, a senior flight director now serving as launch integration manager at the Kennedy Space Center, made inquiries about the possibility of Air Force help inspecting Columbia. Those initial efforts later were terminated by senior management.

As it turned out, NASA didn't even have to ask for help. An unidentified agency - presumably NIMA - offered to inspect Columbia if NASA made a request for emergency assistance. But William Readdy, associate administrator for spaceflight, declined to make such a request because NASA engineers did not believe the imagery would help all that much and because "there was no safety of flight issue. For those reasons," Readdy wrote in a letter to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, "there was no rationale for requesting emergency or high priority support."

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