NASA teams checking reports of California, Arizona debris

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

HEMPHILL, Texas -- NASA sent teams Tuesday to check out reports of space shuttle debris found as far west as California and Arizona -- material that could shed light on the earliest stages of Columbia's breakup.

Later in the day authorities in Texas said a 6- to 7-foot section of what they believe to be part of a shuttle wing was found in a pond east of Nacogdoches.

Michael Kostelnik, a NASA spaceflight office deputy, said the debris farther west could also be wing material, but he cautioned that the space agency has not determined whether it is connected to Columbia at all.

"Debris early in the flight path would be critical because that material would obviously be near the start of the events" that unfolded during the shuttle's west-to-east trip across the country, Kostelnik said.

In California, NASA was sending teams to look at two items, one found in the northern part of the state, the other in the south, according to Highway Patrol spokesman Steve Kohler.

At the same time, investigators in Florida studied sea currents in the Atlantic Ocean near the Kennedy Space Center, trying to determine where heat tiles or other parts that might have fallen off Columbia during its launch would have wound up.

In Vernon Parish, La., a woman out walking found a small, ragged piece of fabric with a Star of David, Sheriff Sam Craft said. The symbol, in a circle between blue and silver bars, is the flag of the Israeli Air Force and is presumably from the suit of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Turned out to be toast

Underscoring the difficulty of sorting out ordinary debris from shuttle wreckage, Arizona officials said one report from Yuma turned out to be burned toast. And Kostelnik said some suspected shuttle debris in Fort Worth had nothing to do with the spacecraft.

"It's easy to be confused. There are a lot of things laying around the country," Kostelnik said.

The discovery on Monday of one of the biggest and most recognizable pieces of Columbia -- the nose cone -- underscored how hard it is likely to be to find the thousands of much-smaller bits of debris. The nose cone was discovered drilled into the ground in a deep thicket near Hemphill by two men who were scouring their land for debris. Reaching the spot requires driving down a dirt road and trudging through briar and muddy stream banks.

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