NASA hopes for clues from large wing piece

Fragment analyzed

photo hints at origin of damage

February 08, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

NASA investigators recovered a large piece from a wing of the Columbia yesterday and were analyzing a new photo of the spacecraft taken in its final moments as investigators searched for clues to what destroyed the shuttle and killed seven astronauts.

Ron Dittemore, manager of the shuttle program, acknowledged that a photo of Columbia taken at an Air Force base in New Mexico might show a plume of smoke trailing from the left wing, the location where investigators believe Columbia first experienced problems.

But he played down the significance of the grainy black-and-white photo taken at the Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base and released by NASA yesterday.

"Looking at the film with my untrained eye, someone might interpret that there's something there; I can't tell," he said.

The leading edge of one of the wings, including its ceramic tiles and carbon-based heat shield material, was found near Fort Worth, Texas, the western edge of a shuttle debris field that stretches more than 200 miles across Texas and Louisiana.

The two-foot section of wing was taken to Carswell Air Force Base, near Fort Worth, where it is being analyzed, Dittemore said.

He said he was unsure whether the wing found in Fort Worth came from the left or right side of the shuttle.

A loss of sensor data, buildup of heat and pressure, and flight control problems all occurred on the left side of the shuttle just before it broke apart, according to NASA.

Dittemore said investigators will continue to examine the theory that a piece of foam insulation from an external fuel tank flew off during the launch, damaging heat-resistant tiles on the bottom side of the left wing.

"It may not be the most likely of contributors to the accident, but that has not kept us from keeping it in the job jar of things to investigate," he said.

NASA has examined the final 32 seconds of data recorded from the shuttle, but it was too garbled to be interpreted and is largely useless, said James Gavura, director of NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System.

"There was 31 seconds [of silence] and then one more second of data," Gavura said.

Flight control data in the final minutes show that heat sensors had failed and the shuttle was struggling to remain stable despite increasing wind resistance on the left side, which suggests possible damage there.

Dittemore also said that sensor information taken during the few minutes before the ship came apart shows inexplicable temperature and pressure changes in the left wing and in areas where the left side landing gear retracts.

He said NASA conducts rigorous inspections of the tires and landing gear before launches and Columbia's landing gear hatches were secured before its Jan. 16 launch.

He also said that, despite the drag on the left side of the craft and the loss of numerous sensors, Columbia still appeared to be flying well when it lost contact with the Johnson Space Flight Center.

"At the point where we lost data, it was not apparent to us that the shuttle was out of control," he said.

A report in Aviation Week yesterday said that an analysis at the Johnson Space Center of the images taken at the Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base, just minutes before the shuttle came apart, show a jagged edge on the left inboard wing, near where the wing intersects with the fuselage.

But Dittemore played down its significance: "You cannot tell from that photo if there is any damage."

NASA officials seemed as mystified yesterday about the causes for the loss of the shuttle as the day it went down. During a briefing in Houston, Dittemore cautioned reporters not to speculate about possible causes from information released so far.

"You go down that merry path of a rush to judgment, and you will be fooled," he said.

Memorial services were held yesterday at the Patuxent Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland and at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the shuttle had been scheduled to land Feb. 1.

"To honor the legacy of Columbia's astronauts, and as a commitment to the families, you can be assured that we will find the cause of the accident, correct the problems and return to safe flight," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said during the ceremony in Florida.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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