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Space Shuttle Columbia

NASA chief rallies his troops in field

NASA Chief Sean O'Keefe at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi on Thursday
NASA Chief Sean O'Keefe at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi on Thursday

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STENNIS SPACE CENTER, Mississippi (CNN) -- NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe on Thursday expressed confidence that the space agency will determine what caused the shuttle Columbia to break up, but said he has no preferred theory to explain the disaster.

"We really don't have a favorite theory as to what it is that caused this," O'Keefe told NASA employees in a town hall meeting at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where the agency tests propulsion rockets, including the main engines used on space shuttles.

Beforehand, O'Keefe visited the nearby Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans, which assembled the external launch tank used on the shuttle Columbia about two years.

There is speculation that a piece of tank foam or ice that dislodged and struck the shuttle's left wing during launch may have played a role in the orbiter's loss when it re-entered the atmosphere 16 days later.

O'Keefe answered questions from employees and vowed to find the cause of the February 1 catastrophe that killed all seven astronauts aboard.

The investigation into the cause of the breakup is being pursued by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, led by retired Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., who has appealed to the public to turn in pieces of suspected shuttle debris, which have been found primarily in Texas and Louisiana.

O'Keefe said the likelihood of finding pieces of the space shuttle will diminish in the spring, as vegetation grows.

"This next 30 days is our best window, given what's about to happen," the NASA chief, dressed in a red, short-sleeved shirt, told workers at Stennis and other NASA centers watching on closed-circuit television.

Though 12,000 pieces of the spacecraft have been collected and trucked to Kennedy Space Center, where they are being studied for clues to the accident, they represent a tiny fraction of the craft, O'Keefe said.

Despite pleas to the public to hand over shuttle debris that might have fallen over western states during the initial stages of the breakup -- pieces that could prove critical to understanding what caused the disaster -- no confirmed pieces of shuttle have been found more than 20 miles west of Fort Worth, Texas, O'Keefe said.

He recalled the breakup of the craft, and the fact that none of the pieces that rained down on East Texas and Louisiana hurt anyone.

"No one was touched. Nothing short of divine intervention made that possible," O'Keefe said.

And he applauded armies of volunteers and workers from 20 federal agencies for their efforts in finding the scattered debris.

"So many people in West Louisiana and Texas committed themselves to having nothing to do other than care about what we asked them to do," he said.

O'Keefe said Columbia's ill-fated trip had its "lighter sides," and recalled that Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon had grappled with how he would observe the Sabbath, during which observant Jews typically do not work.

In orbit, those aboard the shuttle experienced a sunrise and a sunset every 90 minutes, meaning that a Sabbath occurred every 10.5 hours, O'Keefe said.

"It gets worse," the administrator said the astronaut had told him. "After the 20th day, it's Rosh Hashana. What do I do?"

NASA engineers contacted experts in Israel, O'Keefe said. "Jerusalem, we have a problem," he recalled them asking. He did not say how the quandary was resolved.

Meanwhile, plans are continuing for the development of an orbital space plane and other NASA business, he said.

"We're going to find out what caused this, we're going to fix that, and we're going to get back to flying safely."

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