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Institute Professor Sheila E. Widnall, an expert in aerodynamics and fluid mechanics, has been appointed to NASA's Columbia Accident Investigation Board.
"When someone asks you to do these types of things, the only answer is yes," said Widnall, a former Secretary of the Air Force, who will visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston this week and plans to devote several days a week to the investigation.
The Columbia accident occurred during hypersonic re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1 at an altitude and velocity much higher than those flown by conventional aircraft. Retired Admiral Harold W. Gehman, chair of the investigation, said the board planned to add members with expertise in high-altitude aerodynamics and heat transfer. Widnall taught several courses in aerodynamics at MIT, including a graduate course in hypersonic flow.
"Having deep technical expertise is clearly important," said Widnall. "But having technical expertise in one field allows you to ask broader questions about other technical fields."
As Secretary of the Air Force from 1993-97, Widnall presided over high-profile aircraft accident investigations, including the crash of a CT-43 Boeing 737 carrying U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in Croatia in 1996, the crash of an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft in Alaska in 1995 and the shoot-down of two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters by an F-15 aircraft over Iraq in 1994.
Widnall is the first of three new members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to be appointed with the goal of making the board more independent of both NASA and the military. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe modified the board's charter in response to criticism expressed during a Congressional hearing on Feb. 12.
"It is extremely important that the board members are truly independent," Widnall said.
Professor Emeritus Eugene E. Covert, who served on the presidential commission that investigated the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986, said: "I know Sheila very well. She has a high level of integrity. She's an independent person who will state her mind and who will lend credibility to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board."
During her tenure as Secretary of the Air Force, Widnall initiated the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program which led to the development of the Atlas V and Delta IV expendable space launch systems. Since returning to MIT, Widnall has been involved in risk management and mission success of space vehicles. She recently served as chair of the Independent Mission Assurance Review Committee that studied the readiness of the Boeing Delta IV launch vehicle for its first launch in 2002.
Widnall received the S.B. and S.M. (both in 1961) and Sc.D. (1964) degrees in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and was the first woman appointed to the engineering faculty in 1964. She chaired the faculty in 1979 and was associate provost in 1992-93. She was appointed the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Aeronautics in 1986 and named an Institute Professor in 1998 after returning from Washington. Widnall is the first and only woman to head a branch of the U.S. military.
MIT alumnus James N. Hallock is also a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Hallock, who earned the S.B. (1963), S.M. (1969) and Ph.D. (1972) in physics, worked on the development of the Apollo guidance computer at the MIT Instrumentation Lab in the 1960s. Hallock is currently division manager of the Aviation Safety Division at the U.S. Department of Transportation's Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge.
Gehman announced Widnall's appointment on Feb. 15.