A senior NASA official told The Times the satellites would "absolutely" have helped engineers measure possible damage to the wing's protective heat tiles from the debris that hit them about 81 seconds after liftoff Jan. 16.
According to the official, Lambert Austin, an engineer at Johnson Space Center in Houston, asked the shuttle program manager, Ron Dittemore, in a group meeting to obtain the satellite images to help determine the amount of damage. Dittemore turned down the request.
The official said Austin was speaking for several other engineers.
"If they had done that, we might know something," the official said.
Austin declined comment. Dittemore also did not comment, but a NASA spokesman told the newspaper he and other officials had decided the images would not necessarily help determine damage.
The Times also quoted the senior official as saying some NASA engineers are now questioning if the debris came from the large external fuel tank, and they are looking at the solid rocket boosters to see if the debris could have come from there.
The Times said, "It is unclear whether even a better determination of the tile damage would have helped NASA bring the astronauts home safely."
NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said someone at the agency made an early request for satellite imagery to the Defense Department, but the request was later withdrawn by another NASA official, Roger Simpson. He said the request "was not coordinated with the rest of the flight operations world."
The retraction of the request is now part of the Columbia investigation, Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the independent investigative panel, told The Times.
The shuttle was destroyed Feb. 1 as it returned to Earth. All seven astronauts aboard were killed.
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