WASHINGTON – At least three government investigations will probe the Columbia disaster and NASA's shuttle program director vowed to find the answers so America can continue sending people into space.
The investigations will review all the information NASA collected as the spaceship began its descent Saturday morning, then started breaking up more than 200,000 feet over Texas.
That includes transmissions from the crew, as well as records from the shuttle's sensors, analysis of the debris and data from military, government and commercial satellites.
"We will be poring over that data 24 hours a day for the foreseeable future," NASA shuttle project manager Ron Dittemore said.
An independent panel comprised of experts from the Air Force and Navy -- which had five of the seven Columbia crew members -- and officials from the Transportation Department and other federal agencies will study the accident, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said.
The space agency will conduct its own investigation, as will the House Science Committee chaired by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.
"We're going to get together and fix this problem. We're going to launch shuttles again," Dittemore said at a Houston news conference.
He added there will "certainly be a hold on future flights until we get ourselves established and find the root cause of the disaster."
The independent panel was assembled Saturday and began working right away, said Boehlert, whose committee oversees NASA. He said he is confident the expert panel would find the cause of the disaster.
Military satellites with infrared detectors picked up several flashes as Columbia broke apart, according to a defense official who spoke only on condition of anonymity. It was unclear whether those "spikes" of heat indicated an explosion, the burning of pieces of debris re-entering the atmosphere or something else.
O'Keefe and other senior administration officials said there was no indication that any kind of attack from the ground caused the disaster. FBI spokeswoman Angela Bell also said there was no indication of terrorism and that the FBI would have a minor role in the investigation, mainly helping collect evidence.
Dittemore and chief flight director Milt Heflin told reporters that heat sensors under the trailing edge of Columbia's left wing began failing minutes before NASA lost contact with the shuttle. A piece of insulating foam hit the shuttle's left wing during takeoff Jan. 16, but Dittemore said it was far too early to tell whether that incident was related to the disaster.
Following the 1986 crash of the space shuttle Challenger, President Reagan appointed a 13-member commission headed by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers to investigate the accident.
After a series of hearings, the commission reported four months later that an O-ring seal leaked in the right booster rocket. That allowed hot gases to burn through the bracket securing the booster to the shuttle, rupturing the shuttle tank.
The shuttle fleet was grounded for nearly three years while changes were instituted and repairs made.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency took the lead in responding to the Columbia disaster. The military's Northern Command, which handles operations inside the United States, was coordinating the Defense Department's response.
Six F-16 fighters from an Air Force Reserve unit in Fort Worth, Texas, joined in the effort to search for pieces of the shuttle, as did a C-130 airplane from the Texas Air National Guard, the military said.
The Army's 1st Cavalry Division also sent a search and rescue task force from Fort Hood, Texas, to help search for debris.
The task force included four helicopters and military police to search for and to guard pieces of wreckage for collection by NASA, Fort Hood spokesman Cecil Green said.
The teams were relying on UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters during the day and OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters at night, Green said.