Part of shuttle wing found; photos studied
© St. Petersburg Times
JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Texas -- Search teams have found a portion of the "leading edge" of one of shuttle Columbia's wings, while NASA is examining Air Force photos taken during the doomed spacecraft's last moments that could shed light on the cause of the disaster.
The developments came as the investigation into the disaster that killed seven astronauts ends its first week. NASA managers cautioned the probe might be long and painstaking, and it is far too early to draw conclusions.
The photos were taken from Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, N.M., by the Starfire telescope, a satellite-tracking device capable of picking up features as small as 1 foot in size at a range of 600 miles, according to a report in Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine.
Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore showed one of the photos Friday, and said he has called on experts in the field of reading such photos for interpretation.
"It's not clear to me there's something there yet," he said, although he acknowledged "it does look like there's something a little different about the left-hand side and that's an area of interest."
The grainy, choppy photo appears to show a silhouette of the orbiter with a plume or something else trailing the left wing.
Dittemore said NASA has been swamped with photos and video from government sources and private individuals and is painstakingly analyzing each one.
The photos from Kirtland are just some of the many that arrived over the past week, he said.
The photos, however, were recorded as videotape during the critical time that ground controllers were receiving data from Columbia's computers showing the spacecraft was experiencing drag on its left side, prompting a fight by the onboard computers to keep the vehicle under control.
That data could make the discovery overnight Thursday of the portion of one of Columbia's wings significant. The piece, found in the Fort Worth area, is about 27 inches long and has about 18 inches of wing structure attached, Dittemore said, adding that investigators don't know if it was from the left or right wing.
The leading edge of the wing is made of reinforced carbon, designed to counter the intense heat of re-entry. The wreckage includes some of the heat-resistant tiles bonded on the shuttle's lower surfaces, which are individually numbered, officials said. That should help in identification.
The developments might once again focus attention on NASA film footage taken during Columbia's Jan. 16 launch, which showed a 20-inch piece of foam insulation breaking free from the external fuel tank and disintegrating as it struck the left wing.
That incident was the leading suspect in the early days after the disaster, although engineers downplayed it at midweek, saying an engineering analysis performed during the flight concluded the foam wouldn't have caused enough damage to affect the flight.
Dittemore said the foam debris is still under scrutiny, although he believes neither the Air Force photos nor the recovered wing section have strengthened the case for the theory.
NASA also had hoped to recover about 32 seconds of computer data relayed to ground stations after voice communications with the orbiter were lost. But the data was so garbled it was essentially useless, said James Gavura, director of NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System.
"There was 31 seconds (of silence) and then 1 more second of data," Gavura said.
The debris recovery continued Friday, with heavy work by more than 1,000 searchers going on in east Texas and west Louisiana, the area where most of the wreckage fell. Although there have been more than 300 reports of debris in California, Arizona and New Mexico, none have been confirmed as shuttle debris, Dittemore said.
NASA is intensely interested in debris from further west than Fort Worth because it might have come off the portion of the orbiter that first began to experience problems.
Debris crews also combed the area along the Texas-Louisiana border for the wreckage of a secret device that allowed the encryption of communications between NASA and the shuttle.
NASA spokesman John Ira Petty said Friday that finding the box was a high priority because officials feared its technology could be used "to send bogus signals" to other shuttles during future flights.
Searchers have found and cataloged the locations of more than 12,000 pieces of debris across Texas and Louisiana. The debris will be taken to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., then to Kennedy Space Center for reconstruction, officials said.
Investigators also are poring over the hundreds of photos and videos from out West, some of which in media reports appear to show something falling off the spacecraft. One video clip also appears to show a burst of light, leading to speculation that static electricity or some other phenomenon might have hit the craft.
NASA has yet to draw solid conclusions from the photos, Dittemore said.
But scientists at the Environmental Technology Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., are looking for evidence that a bolt of electricity in the upper atmosphere might have doomed the shuttle as it streaked over California.
Investigators are combing records from a network of ultrasensitive instruments that might have detected a faint thunderclap in the upper atmosphere at the same time a photograph taken by a San Francisco astronomer appears to show a purplish bolt of lightning striking the shuttle.
"We're working hard on the data set. We have an obligation," said Alfred Bedard, a scientist at the lab. He said the lab was providing the data to NASA but it was too early to draw conclusions.
While the wreckage recovery and analysis continued Friday, several thousand workers at the Kennedy Space Center gathered for a memorial service. The shuttles lift off and often return to the facility, and much of the maintenance and flight preparation work is done there.
Dittemore said NASA is moving along with the process of handing over leadership of the accident investigation to an independent board headed by retired Adm. Harold Gehman. After congressional criticism, NASA amended the panel's charter this week to "guarantee" its independence and allow more non-NASA members to be added.
While Dittemore praised the NASA team for its response to the tragedy, he cautioned the press and public against trying to draw conclusions too soon.
"It's very tempting," he said. "You want to draw conclusions as quickly as you can but you can't do that. We know if you go down that merry path to a rushed conclusion, you will be fooled."
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