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Shuttle Disaster

Wing part came from troubled side of shuttle

©Associated Press

February 11, 2003

SPACE CENTER, Houston -- After three days of uncertainty, NASA said Monday a piece of broken wing found last week was from space shuttle Columbia's left side -- where all the problems appear to have begun in the final minutes of the doomed flight.

The fragment includes a 2-foot piece of carbon-composite panel, a dense material that covered the leading edge of the wing, and a 1 1/2-foot piece of the wing itself. Engineers are not yet certain where the piece fits.

It could be extremely important, given that the trouble apparently originated in the left wing during the final minutes before the shuttle broke up Feb. 1 above Texas, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Barely a minute after liftoff on Jan. 16, a piece of insulating foam from Columbia's external fuel tank broke off and slammed into the ship's left wing. The impact by the foam remains a central part of the investigation. In the final minutes of flight, some sensors in the left wing and in the left wheel well showed unusual spikes in temperature.

After the wing fragment was found Friday, NASA's deputy associate administrator for spaceflight, Michael Kostelnik, called it "a significant recovery."

NASA originally said the piece was found west of Fort Worth. On Monday, the agency said satellite coordinates indicated it had actually been found near Corsicana, 66 miles southeast of Fort Worth.

The condition of the wing fragment wasn't immediately disclosed. NASA was checking the carbon panel and the silica glass-fiber thermal tiles for evidence of burning, either from the intense heat of re-entry or from something else.

NASA said it also has found the cover of one of the two landing gear compartments, another potentially critical piece because a temperature surge inside the left wheel well was the first sign of trouble. But officials do not yet know whether it is from the right or left side of Columbia.

Another incident highlighted the confusion even among top NASA officials as to what wreckage is being found -- and where.

Bill Readdy, NASA's top spaceflight official, told reporters in Washington that one of the shuttle's main computers had been found in a Texas field "apparently in fairly good condition."

He later said he was informed by a Johnson Space Center manager that it was an avionics box, not a general purpose computer.

"When he had a chance to look at it, sorry, wrong, not a general purpose computer," Readdy said. "That was our hope, maybe we were hoping too much."

An avionics box monitors and controls most of the systems on the shuttle. There are more than 300 of the boxes in the spacecraft.

In Texas, searchers found human remains and what appeared to be gauges and other Columbia components in a farmer's field Monday, while divers retrieved a chunk of metal from a reservoir where large pieces of the shuttle may have splashed down.

The 40-pound piece of circular metal -- about 21/2 feet in diameter and a foot thick -- was not immediately identified as a piece of the shuttle, said EPA spokesman Kevin Larson.

Divers entered the Toledo Bend Reservoir along the Texas-Louisiana line Monday after bad weather thwarted several attempts last week. Searchers have focused on the 75-mile-long manmade lake near Hemphill since witnesses had reported debris the size of a small car hitting it after Columbia broke up.

Using sonar and a robotic camera, searchers previously identified objects they wanted to examine on the bottom. Divers were expected to continue the search today.

Debris is being taken to sprawling storage area at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana before it is sent on to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.

The first of three truckloads of debris is expected to arrive at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday. The pieces will be taken to a 50,000-square-foot hangar, where they will be assembled in an effort to find out what happened.

About 25 workers laid down yellow tape in a 188-foot-by-166-foot grid along the concrete floor of the hangar Monday. Workers also put down blue tape over the yellow tape in the shape of the shuttle.

LOOTING ARREST: A Harrison County constable was arrested by federal officials Monday and accused of stealing debris from the space shuttle, U.S. Attorney Matthew Orwig said.

Robert Hagan, 45, was charged with theft of government property, which is punishable by a 10-year sentence and a $250,000 fine. He appeared in federal court in Tyler, Texas, and was released on a $5,000 bond.

In Texas, constables are primarily responsible for serving court papers and working as courtroom bailiffs. They are elected to four-year terms.

ISRAEL REMEMBERS ASTRONAUT: Standing side by side, the widow and teenage son of fallen astronaut Ilan Ramon blinked back tears and reached out to touch his flag-draped coffin. Israel's first man in space had come home.

In the hangar of Lod Air Force Base, a solemn crowd of mourners -- former presidents and prime ministers, bearded rabbis and sweatshirt-clad high-school kids, uniformed soldiers young and old -- gathered Monday to hear eulogies to Ramon.

Ramon's teenage son Assaf, who last week said he wanted to be an astronaut like his father, wore one of his dad's blue NASA flight jackets. Rona, Ramon's wife, held the youngest of their four children in her lap as the family listened to a popular Israeli folk song Do You Hear My Voice Calling You From Afar, the tune she chose to have beamed to her husband in space as his wakeup call. Ramon will be buried during a small family ceremony today.

-- Information from the Associated Press, Cox News Service and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

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