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Region has many ties to space shuttle program

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

FAIRMONT -- NASA's space-exploration family includes a surprising number of people in North Central West Virginia, according to the administration's local facility director.

"The whole rest of us are the enablers," Ned Keeler said of providing backup to explorers such as those lost in Saturday's Columbia disaster.

Locally, that assist involves testing software like that which controlled the Columbia's final glide. The angling of its tiled belly into the worst of re-entry heat and the side-to-side rolling that slows such

spacecraft down are computer-controlled. The Columbia broke apart for reasons still under study during that final phase of its 16-day mission.

In addition to area National Aeronautic and Space Administration staff, Keeler said several North Central high-technology companies are part of the Independent Verification and Validation Facility's work.

They include such organizations as the Institute for Scientific Research, Inc. and Galaxy Global of Fairmont and Titan Corp., a San Diego-based firm whose Fairmont operation is the main local NASA contractor. Representatives of those businesses attended Keeler's speech, which was given at the West Virginia High Technology Consortium's monthly luncheon.

Keeler said the local NASA center has already submitted its Columbia data -- up through the time of the disaster -- for study.

Titan employees, 25 of whom are stationed in Houston, have also turned in data. A few of them are also working with the investigation team, said John Dicks, local Titan lead.

In addition to their technological ties to the Columbia, both Keeler and Dicks said area NASA employees and contractors have a strong emotional connection to all manned space missions.

"You work with these folks every day," said Dicks, who worked at Johnson Space Center in Houston for 11 years. "(When something goes wrong) there's a feeling ... you have failed your friends."

Keeler said it will take a while for local support staff to work through their grief. He noted watching Tuesday's memorial service in Houston and said someone had placed flowers at the Fairmont facility.

"But the excitement of what we do and what needs to be done will prevail," he said of getting back to work testing such software as that used in the International Space Station and the anticipated spring launch of another Mars Rover mission.

Ironically, this is not the Fairmont center's first brush with a space disaster. The facility opened in 1993 as a result of the 1986 Challenger explosion, Keeler said. A study determined a need for an independent testing facility although software problems did not contribute to that mission's failure.

Keeler spoke to the 225-person capacity crowd in lieu of Gen. Robert Foglesong, a West Virginia native who is vice chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force. Foglesong was unable to leave the capital on Wednesday.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.