- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 4 (UPI) — NASA on Tuesday dispatched investigators after hearing reports of debris in California and Arizona, over which shuttle Columbia flew before breaking apart over Texas.

"If it is wing material, that certainly would be important to the investigation," said NASA's deputy space flight administrator, Michael Kostelnik.

NASA expanded its debris search area to California and Arizona in hopes of finding components that broke away from shuttle Columbia before its final, fatal flight over Texas, officials said Tuesday.

The key piece of evidence could be a single insulating tile that analysts could use to piece together the puzzling final minutes of the shuttle's flight. Columbia fell from the sky on Saturday as it nose-dived across the United States, heading toward a runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Seven astronauts died in the accident. They were honored Tuesday at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the first of two planned national memorial services.

With the possibility of wreckage from the spaceship falling as far east as Florida, NASA and federal agencies assisting with the search have a tremendous amount of ground to cover, said Kostelnik, who oversees the shuttle and space station programs.

"It's very long, unprecedented track to deal with," said Kostelnik.

Radar images taken shortly after the shuttle's breakup show a shower of debris concentrated over Texas and spanning east toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Also Tuesday, NASA dispatched investigators to examine large components that were found in Louisiana, possibly parts of Columbia's main engines.

NASA is working on the assumption that a large, but lightweight, piece of foam insulation — 20 inch by 10 inch by 6 inch, and 2.5 pounds — seen in video as falling off the shuttle's external fuel tank while Columbia lifted off Jan. 16, then hitting the orbiter's left wing, damaging its heat-resistant tiles.

It was the third time a fairly large chuck of foam had fallen from a shuttle fuel tank at liftoff, said Kostelnik, adding that "there have been no process changes in terms of foam application."

As Columbia soared 18 times the speed of sound in the atmospheric plasma field reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the tiles may have come off, dooming the shuttle and its seven-member crew.

Kostelnik said NASA has impounded videotape taken from an Apache helicopter that tracked the shuttle as it flew over Texas.

Analysis conducted during flight showed the impact would not pose a danger to the shuttle during re-entry. "We had never seen a safety-of-flight issue from an impact like this," said Kostelnik.

Earlier Tuesday, members of NASA's independent Space Shuttle Accident Investigation Board, headed by retired Adm. Harold Gehman, toured a debris recovery area in Nacogdoches, Texas.

"Being out here on site makes this accident more personal to us," Gehman said. "It brings it home … prevents it from becoming an abstract event. I know that we're not going to come out here this morning and solve this mystery, but we felt it imperative that we get out here and get an impression of what the debris field feels like, looks like and what some of the debris looks like."

The panel is expected to take supervisory control of 20 teams investigating various technical aspects of the accident, such as data analysis, debris collection, photography and engineering data.

Gehman's panel is working out of Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where most of the debris is being taken. A second debris collection site has been set up near Fort Worth, Texas.

Gehman said he has twin pressures in place: Getting the story right about what happened to Columbia, and finding it out quickly so the remaining shuttle fleet — consisting of Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour — can resume support and construction of the International Space Station.

"The astronauts who will fly on future orbiter missions need to know that we have done everything we have possibly can to come to the bottom of this and fix it," said Gehman. "On the other hand, we have three astronauts in space right now, who are depending upon us to resume operations. So we'll see how quickly we can move, but at the same time, we've got to get it right. We're very aware of that, and we have no timetable for any of our deliberations."

Debris collection, added Kostelnik, is expected to take "weeks, not months."

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