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One of America’s most experienced spacewalkers has reportedly told investigators that NASA could have easily drawn up a plan to send two of the shuttle Columbia’s astronauts on a short inspection outing to look for damage. The assessment from retired astronaut Story Musgrave is in contrast to claims made just after the tragedy that such an inspection would have been impossible.

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The “what-if” exercise is part of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s inquiry into whether additional action could have been taken to save the shuttle’s seven astronauts, who lost their lives in the skies over Texas when Columbia broke up during re-entry on Feb. 1.

Only 81 seconds after the shuttle launched on Jan. 16, pieces of flying debris from the external fuel tank hit the spacecraft’s left wing.

Engineers could not fully assess how much damage might have been done, but NASA determined the damage was not significant, based on past experience with foam insulation debris. Investigators now suspect that the debris may have created a breach in the wing’s leading edge that set the stage for the shuttle’s destruction by hot re-entry gases.

Just after the disaster, NASA officials and some former astronauts said there was no way Columbia’s astronauts could have assessed the damage from space, even though two of the crew members had been prepared for an emergency spacewalk.

“It would be impossible to do a walk and maneuver yourself underneath the belly of the space shuttle to do any type of inspection or repair,” former astronaut Richard Mullane told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Feb. 2.

Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore, meanwhile, voiced concern that spacewalkers could make any damage worse.

But Musgrave, who choreographed the spacewalks that led to the rescue of the Hubble Space Telescope a decade ago, told the investigation board that such assessments were incorrect, according to a report published Thursday in the newspaper Florida Today.

'They never asked'
Florida Today also quoted a member of the investigation board, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hess, as saying mission managers assumed a spacewalk was unnecessary because there was no serious damage to see.

“They never asked,” Hess told the newspaper.

The Florida Today report was confirmed Thursday by NBC News, and is consistent with what flight controllers have told NBC privately. The controllers have said an inspection spacewalk could have been conducted by canceling two days of research on the 16-day mission.

Musgrave’s testimony raises the profile of such speculation because he is one of the most respected spacewalk authorities in the United States. He joined NASA in 1967 and flew on six shuttle missions for a total of 1,281 hours in space. His career highlights include the first shuttle spacewalk in 1983 as well as the first Hubble servicing spacewalk in 1993. He retired from NASA in 1997.

Spacewalk scenario
The 67-year-old Musgrave told Florida Today that one spacewalk scenario could have involved sending Columbia astronauts Michael Anderson and David Brown out of the cargo bay along the left wing. One astronauts could have tethered himself to a latch on the cargo bay doors, then the tethered astronaut could have swung the other spacewalker over the edge of the wing for the inspection.

The newspaper quoted Musgrave as saying he double-checked the geometry of actual shuttle wings at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to confirm his calculations.

“It’s not difficult and not dangerous,” Musgrave was quoted as saying. “There would have been zero risk involved. It would have been a 15-minute walk.”

More what-ifs
If the spacewalkers had detected serious damage, could anything have been done to repair it?

That is the situation considered in another set of scenarios, described last week by the investigation board. NASA could have instituted severe conservation measures aboard Columbia and rushed launch preparations for the shuttle Atlantis for a rendezvous and rescue — or the astronauts could have attempted a jury-rigged repair themselves, using bags of water, insulation blankets and rolls of Teflon tape.

The possible scenarios for detecting damage and mounting a rescue or repair operation are likely to become part of the investigation board’s final report, which is expected to be completed this summer.

The report is also expected to include recommendations for putting the shuttle fleet back into service. During the board’s weekly briefing on Wednesday, Chairman Harold Gehman Jr. said investigators were considering a recommendation that NASA’s return to flight would begin with a scaled-down demonstration mission.

NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree and NBC News space analyst James Oberg contributed to this report.

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