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Expert on USS Cole Probe to Head Independent Commission on Columbia

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.