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NASA: No Changes in Columbia Re-Entry Could Have Saved Shuttle

No changes in the way the space shuttle Columbia returned to Earth would have saved it, an internal NASA (search) report concludes.

Even dumping nearly 16 tons of non-essential items, including science experiments, water and equipment, would not have protected the spacecraft from breaking apart on re-entry, according to the report released by NASA Thursday. Dumping those items would also have required two spacewalks (search).

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the analysis was ordered after questions arose from the board investigating the Columbia (search) accident.

The report, he said, was "looking at just the very narrow question of what de-orbit re-entry options could be pursued that might have been different from the one that was taken. And would that materially have made a difference?"

O'Keefe noted the report doesn't look at what things could have been done during the 16-day mission had NASA known of the seriousness of the breach and looked at ways to possibly repair it or make other changes.

The NASA chief had said weeks ago that the space agency would have done everything possible to save the seven astronauts had it known of the damage to the craft at liftoff.

The internal analysis was conducted by a NASA team led by flight director LeRoy Cain, who was at Mission Control the morning of the accident.

The leading theory for the Feb. 1 Columbia disaster is that a piece of foam insulation broke off the fuel tank during liftoff Jan. 16, hitting and dislodging a fragment of a panel or seal along the vulnerable leading edge of the shuttle's left wing.

That created a gap that let in deadly scorching atmospheric gases during re-entry two weeks later, killing the seven astronauts on board.

The Cain report looked at three weight reduction scenarios and concluded that any measures to reduce the heat stress the shuttle faced during its descent would not have been enough to save the spacecraft.

Removing the highest amount of weight possible was considered the best of the three options NASA might have taken had the agency realized the extent of the damage from the foam. But it only would have resulted in a 7 percent reduction in temperature along the left wing's leading edge.

All of the options would have left the shuttle with the absolute minimums required to run critical systems, without any chances to wave-off landing opportunities and with a reduced ability to handle any new problems.

The scenarios all assumed there was no damage to Columbia's thermal protection system because no computer model could accurately predict what impact even minor damage could have on heating of the shuttle.

Patricia Brach, a spokeswoman for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said the group has not yet reviewed the report and it won't make any comment on it until it does so.