- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 6 (UPI) — NASA dispatched investigators to the deserts of Southern California and Arizona Thursday to collect and sort through bits of possible debris from the space shuttle Columbia that could provide leads into the cause of the deadly disaster.

With the possibility that a loose piece of foam insulation mortally wounded the orbiter now being discounted by NASA, the space agency is hoping that small pieces found in the Southwest will shed new light on the initial moments of the shuttle's demise.

"It does not make sense that a piece of (foam) debris caused the loss of Columbia and its crew," Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore told reporters late Wednesday.

The space agency's investigators have determined that the doomed shuttle apparently tried to save itself several seconds before it broke up over Texas by automatically firing its steering jets in an attempt to compensate for increasing drag on the left wing.

"It was doing well, but it was losing the battle," Dittemoore pointed out.

No significant confirmed pieces of Columbia have been recovered in the Southwest, however it is presumed anything found would have come off in the initial phase of the break-up.

"Once you collect it all, you can look at it in time sequence," Dittemore said.

While authorities in the desert areas of California and around Phoenix fielded a steady stream of calls about possible debris discoveries starting Saturday, most have been discounted as old car parts and other bits of earthbound litter.

One promising discovery was made Saturday afternoon in the dirt driveway of Robert Beggs's home in the remote Joshua Tree area of San Bernardino County. A 2 -by-3 inch square of what appeared to be a composite material that was burned through in the center piqued the interest of NASA when it was reported to them by the sheriff's office.

"They (NASA) said the item appeared to be consistent with something that would have come off the shuttle," Sheriff's Sgt. Fred Gonzalez told a group of reporters Wednesday.

NASA is also asking for any video footage or photographs that might show the crippled shuttle.

An apparent contrail captured by a remote-controlled camera in Corona operated by Los Angeles television station KABC was turned over to NASA to see if the crooked white streak was caused by a piece of the Columbia plummeting to the ground in Riverside County.

The San Francisco Chronicle said Thursday that an amateur astronomer captured an image that appeared to show a possible lightning bolt striking the Columbia. The picture was apparently intriguing enough for NASA to send former shuttle astronaut Tammy Jernigan to pick up the photo and the camera and have them flown by a NASA jet to Houston.

"We sure will be very interested in taking a very hard look at this," Jernigan told the newspaper.

There were no storm clouds in the area at the time Columbia streaked across the sky shortly before dawn. The Chronicle said analysts believe the purplish bolt of lightning could have been caused by a movement of the camera, or was the result of the shuttle's fiery re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

"It is an extraordinary light show," said Jernigan, a veteran of five shuttle flights. "There are flashes of pinks and yellows and whites."

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