HOUSTON -- Molten aluminum was found on Columbia's thermal tiles and inside the leading edge of the left wing, bolstering the theory that the shuttle was destroyed by hot gases that penetrated a damaged spot on the wing, the accident investigation board said Tuesday.
Roger Tetrault, a board member, said he suspects the melting of the spaceship's aluminum framework occurred because of the piercing gases and also because of the intense heat of falling through the atmosphere.
Tetrault said both tires from the left main landing gear also show evidence of extreme trauma from the Feb. 1 disaster: They are flat with torn fabric, possibly from a rupture in the final seconds of the spaceship's flight, Tetrault said.
Investigators have theorized that foam or other debris that broke off the shuttle's big external fuel tank during liftoff Jan. 16 damaged the wing -- perhaps the leading edge, perhaps the area around the wheel well -- and allowed hot gases to penetrate the wing and destroy the shuttle. All seven astronauts were killed when their ship shattered over Texas, just minutes short of their planned Florida landing.
Also . . .
DEATH PENALTY STUDY: A committee appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recommended Tuesday that the state halt executions until the effects of possible racial bias in capital cases was better understood.
Blacks are overrepresented on death row in Pennsylvania by all measures, the report said, with 62 percent of the inmates. Pennsylvania is second to Louisiana in the percentage of blacks on death row, at 65 percent, the report said.
The committee urged the Supreme Court and Gov. Edward G. Rendell to impose an immediate moratorium, but it appears highly unlikely that the court or the governor will do so.
PLEDGE RULING ON HOLD: A federal appeals court on Tuesday put on hold its ruling barring the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public classrooms, pending an appeal to the Supreme Court. The order followed a request by the Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento. The daughter of the man whose suit led the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to find the pledge unconstitutional attends school there.
CRASH SURVIVORS IMPROVE: Three young brothers who spent 18 hours on a frigid mountainside in the wreckage of an airplane showed improvement at a hospital Tuesday, two days after the crash that killed the rest of their family.
The body temperatures of Ryan, 2, Jordan, 5, and Tyler, 10, were back to normal, a doctor at Albany Medical Center Hospital said. But it was too early to tell if any would lose extremities or tissue to frostbite.
The family was returning from a Florida vacation when the plane crashed.