Key recorder from aboard Columbia found in Texas

Device could hold data from shuttle's last hours

March 20, 2003|By Ralph Vartabedian | Ralph Vartabedian,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Shuttle accident investigators located a key data recorder in a debris field yesterday, raising hopes that it contains information about Columbia's final hour or two of flight and what caused its destruction.

The device was found by a search crew near Hemphill, Texas, during an effort to visually search nearly 500 square miles of the state.

"This is the one we really wanted to get our hands on," said Laura Brown, spokeswoman for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. "It has data from a dozen sensors that record temperature, aerodynamic pressure and other sensor inputs."

The recorder was recovered intact, but investigators do not know whether it was damaged by heat as it dropped through the atmosphere after Columbia broke apart Feb. 1.

Columbia was the only one of the four shuttles that carried this recorder, said James Hartsfield, a NASA spokesman at the Johnson Space Center. It was installed because Columbia was the first shuttle and engineers wanted as much data as possible about early flights. It was connected to a wide variety of instruments on the craft, he said; many of those instruments have been removed since Columbia first flew in 1981.

Unlike commercial aircraft, shuttles continuously transmit flight data to the ground, where it is recorded for future analysis. On the recorder would be supplemental data that was never transmitted. It would not contain any conversations that occurred in the cockpit; unlike the practice in commercial aircraft, such conversations are not recorded during shuttle flights.

Hartsfield said Columbia also carried flight control computers and mass memory units that record data, but no information from any of those devices has been recovered.

"We have not found any that have had any data that could be salvaged," he said. "Finding this is exciting, tempered by the fact that we don't know what it will tell us and what condition the data is in."

Brown said the recorder was transported to Johnson Space Center, where a NASA team would begin assessing its condition. The device, known as an orbiter experiments support systems recorder, begins operating just before the shuttle enters the atmosphere and can hold up to two hours of data, she said.

The tape might provide invaluable information about aerodynamic pressures and heating irregularities.

Ralph Vartabedian writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing paper.

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