NASA: Falling foam is still remote suspect in disaster
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SPACE CENTER, Houston -- A day after all but ruling it out as a leading cause, NASA said Thursday that investigators are still considering whether a piece of insulating foam that struck Columbia's wing during liftoff was enough to bring down the shuttle.
Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said that even though the possibility appeared remote, investigators must remain open to every option as they put together a so-called fault tree into what caused Columbia's fiery breakup just minutes from its landing Saturday.
The accident investigation board, led by retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., arrived at Johnson Space Center on Thursday and met with Dittemore and other shuttle officials. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe pledged from Washington that "every single piece of evidence, every fact, every issue" will be checked, and the board's conclusions will be final and absolute.
Before ruling the foam out as a culprit, NASA will test its impact on the thousands of fragile thermal tiles that cover each space shuttle. In addition, the entire analysis that was conducted during Columbia's flight is being redone "to see if there was anything that we missed," he said.
CAMERA WAS OUT OF FOCUS: NASA confirmed Thursday that the camera with the "best view" of Columbia's launch and a potentially crucial crash of insulating foam against the shuttle's left wing was out of focus and engineers couldn't get what they needed when they looked for alternate photos.
WESTERN IMAGES STUDIED: As NASA investigators continue their hunt for clues from the fallen Columbia, new attention is being given to images taken by backyard astronomers as the shuttle streaked across the Western skies.
In the videos and still photographs, the amateur astronomers see what appears to them to be bright flashes followed by wreckage as far west as California. However, it is far too early to know precisely what the images show, Dittemore cautioned Thursday.
Washington honors shuttle crew
WASHINGTON -- Two days after the national memorial in Houston for Columbia's seven fallen astronauts, Washington said goodbye in its own way Thursday.
In a low-key ceremony at the National Cathedral, Vice President Dick Cheney told hundreds of mourners: "Every great act of exploration involves great risk. The crew of the Columbia accepted that risk in service to all mankind. The Columbia is lost, but the dreams that inspired its crew remain with us."
The emotional highlight of the service came when singer Patti LaBelle, tears shimmering on her face, belted out the song Way Up There, which included the lyrics: "Imagination and amazing grace bring us closer to our home in space."
Weather hampers search for debris
HEMPHILL, Texas -- Search crews and investigators were withdrawn from the sprawling wilderness Thursday afternoon as heavy and chilling rains softened the terrain and created a high risk of hypothermia, slowing the search for the scattered debris of the space shuttle Columbia.
Before they stopped, searchers found 10 pieces of computer components near Chireno, Texas, several with visible serial numbers on them. Investigators also checked reports of debris in California and Arizona, but shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said late Thursday that as far as he knew, no shuttle parts had been confirmed west of Fort Worth, Texas, and none provided critical information.
Officials across the region said the weather was impeding progress in several areas, preventing aerial surveillance and making the dense forests a hazard to searchers on foot.
The rain also could spell trouble for debris that has already been tagged and left in the field for collection.
Space junk collisions not rare
WASHINGTON -- Space shuttles have been returning to Earth with a larger-than-expected number of dings from space junk, prompting NASA to make changes to better avoid potentially catastrophic collisions, space agency documents show.
As NASA explores whether damage from space debris could have caused the Columbia disaster, its own documents detail replacements of nicked windshields and dents caused by space debris collisions that have become more frequent than NASA's computer models had predicted.
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