NASA - Wing fragment came from shuttle's troubled left side

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

SPACE CENTER, Houston -- NASA said Monday that a piece of broken wing found last week was from Columbia's troubled left side, giving investigators a potential clue in the space shuttle disaster.

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 certain where the piece fits.

The fragment could be extremely important, given that all the trouble apparently began in the left wing during the final minutes of Columbia's flight Feb. 1. The shuttle broke up above Texas as it returned to Earth, killing all seven people aboard.

After the wing fragment was found last week, NASA deputy associate administrator Michael Kostelnik called it "a significant recovery."

It wasn't yet known whether the carbon panel or the silica glass-fiber thermal tiles on the wing had been burned through by the intense heat of re-entry or damaged in another way.

"That's something that the engineers would be looking for," Kostelnik said.

NASA said Friday that the piece was found near Fort Worth. On Monday, Kostelnik corrected that location to much farther east.

Found cover

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 among NASA officials as to what wreckage is being found -- and where.

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

A few hours later, he corrected himself, saying the item was an avionics box, which monitors and controls most of the systems on the shuttle. There are more than 300 of the boxes on the spacecraft.

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

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said debris would be taken this week to Kennedy Air Force Base in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where it will be cataloged and assembled.

Engineers there will reassemble as much of the shuttle as they can in a hangar. An independent board investigating the disaster will have offices in the hangar.

Kostelnik said engineers are still looking at high resolution photographs of Columbia taken by a powerful Air Force telescope camera, but said "no engineering judgment" has been made on the images.

One photo, taken a minute or two before Columbia broke up, is drawing special interest. A dark gray streak can be seen trailing the left wing, and the leading edge of that wing appears to be jagged. Kostelnik said resolution on the photos was no better than what was released to the public Friday.

Kostelnik said the agency is also looking at data collected by weather and Federal Aviation Authority radar to determine whether debris or a weather phenomenon could have been factors in the accident.

The Columbia investigation board held a series of meetings Monday in an office near Johnson Space Center, as its pace picked up. The chairman, Harold German Jr. -- a retired admiral who investigated the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole -- said two to three teams of experts would analyze all the pictures and video taken of Columbia as it flew over California, Arizona, New Mexico and, finally, Texas.

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