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No Indication of Problems During Columbia Flight, Official Says

Appearing before a joint session of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, O’Keefe said there was no evidence of problems during the shuttle’s 16-day mission.

“We had no indications that would suggest a compromise to flight safety,” O’Keefe told the panel. However, he said the committee established to investigate the Columbia disaster would release its findings “as soon as the ink is dry.”

The committee also questioned the charter and makeup of the commission established to investigate the accident. The congressional panel probed into the independent nature of the investigative body, saying it must be truly separate from NASA in order to avoid possible influence from the space agency.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) noted that under current guidelines the committee was required to coordinate with NASA in order to release reports.

“I’m afraid this won’t pass anybody’s ‘smell test’ of independence,” he told O’Keefe during the hearing.

Several members suggested that committee oversight should go to the White House, as was the case in the 1986 investigation of the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion.

O’Keefe stressed that the members of the investigation board were selected for their expertise.

“Quite simply,” he said, “the people who are now on the board are some of the best in the world at what they do.”

He also said that NASA would abide by the commission’s recommendations following its investigation.

“There is nothing that is not on the table,” O’Keefe said. “We will be guided by what the commission says… [and] you have our assurance that this distinguished board will be able to act with genuine independence.”

O’Keefe said NASA was committed to resuming space flight, although he could not predict when such missions might resume.

On the ground in Texas, investigators said Wednesday that they had found “significant amounts” of human remains believed to be Columbia’s astronauts as continued their search for debris in Texas and Louisiana. Sheriff Tommy Maddox told reporters the remains were found in Sabine County, Texas, which is bordered by a reservoir along the Louisiana line.

Thousands of pieces of the shuttle have been recovered and are being shipped to the Kennedy Space Center, with the first shipments arriving Wednesday morning.

NASA officials are preparing to reconstruct at least part of the shuttle in hopes of determining what caused it to break apart.

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