WASHINGTON — Following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in February, NASA
officials activated a 13-member board to determine the cause of the accident.

Three of those board members are bluesuiters. They said they believe some of the
lessons learned while working with NASA can be brought back with them to the Air

"There is a lot of process, surveillance and inspection … issues involved in
how NASA does its business that I know we will bring back to how we do business
in the Air Force," said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hess, Air Force chief of safety.

The airmen may also bring back to the Air Force some of the technical expertise
regarding the aging process of space vehicles, according to officials. Unlike
the Air Force, which uses an expendable launch vehicle, NASA uses a reusable
launch vehicle — the space shuttle.

The effect of aging on the shuttle provides valuable information for future Air
Force development projects according to another board member.

"Just as we have aging aircraft, there are aging spacecraft," said Maj. Gen.
John Barry, director of plans and programs at Air Force Materiel Command. "We
are learning a lot of things on aging, and those things will eventually be
applied … as we start building the space maneuvering vehicles and space
operating vehicles of the future. Those kinds of lessons … will be
instrumental in helping the military develop these vehicles of the future."

While the Air Force will take home some valuable information as a result of its
participation on the board, it also brings to the table some valuable Air Force
corporate knowledge.

"I’ve participated in a dozen investigations, including both aircraft and
spacecraft," said Brig. Gen. Duane W. Deal, 21st Space Wing commander.
"(Another) thing we bring to the (Columbia Accident Investigation Board) is
aviation experience, particularly with the support staff we brought in."

While the support staff used by board members are not strictly part of the
board, their expertise and contributions were important to the investigation,
according to officials.

Deal said as many as 12 airmen and six Air Force civilians have assisted during
the investigation. This includes people from the Air Force Safety Center at
Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., an engineer from the Air Force Academy and
researchers skilled in metallurgy, thermodynamics and design issues from
Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

NASA officials said they did not plan for the space-shuttle program to last
beyond 10 years, but the project has been going on now for more than 20, with
plans to go on even longer. The Air Force has years of experience in dealing
with and extending the life of aging aircraft. Some of that knowledge, Barry
said, can be transferred to NASA.

"There are a lot of lessons that the Air Force has learned about aging aircraft
that can be applied here," Barry said.

While technical knowledge is important in determining the cause of the Columbia
accident, the board is doing more than that, Deal said.

"Our most important (job) was … to help prevent (another) accident," he said.
"That involves looking at the entire shuttle system and components and seeing
what type of problems they have."

Some of those problems, Deal said, involve chains of communication within NASA.

"The good news is that the Air Force already does (those) things very well," he
said. "We have good communication between the various systems. If one wing in
the Air Force has a problem with an F-16 (Fighting Falcon), every other wing
that works with F-16s will hear about it almost instantaneously.î

The final decision of the board concerning the cause of the Columbia accident
will be in the board’s final report, which will be released Aug. 26.