- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

Recovery crews quietly continued looking for Space Shuttle Columbia debris after ending formal recovery efforts in May.

But now the search in five areas in the western United States has ended, too, the head of NASA’s shuttle investigation said yesterday.

“We finally ended up saying last week ‘we’re finished,’” said David Whittle, chairman of the space agency’s Columbia Mishap Investigation Team.

Recovery crews were looking for shuttle debris in two areas in Nevada, two areas in Utah and one area in New Mexico. The search for shuttle debris there was driven by phone calls from the people who reported finding pieces of Columbia.

Workers found no debris in the western United States to contribute to the nearly 84,000 pieces spread out on a hangar floor at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

No piece of debris has been found farther west than Littlefield, Texas, near Fort Worth.

“No searching is going on anywhere now,” Mr. Whittle said. “My plan is to wait until the investigation board puts out its report, then I am going to try to close this office. I do not intend to open any more [search areas].”

Columbia disintegrated Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts on board. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board believes a chunk of foam insulation hit the shuttle’s left wing 81 seconds after launch, causing a hole in the its left wing that allowed scorching gases to penetrate Columbia during re-entry.

Most of Columbia’s parts were discovered in a massive tract of land — 240 miles long and 10 miles wide — stretching from Corsicana, Texas, to just across the Texas-Louisiana state line. The recovery effort included more than 5,000 workers from NASA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal, state and local government agencies.

With the searches yielding no more shuttle pieces, debris-search field offices in Palestine, Hemphill and Nacogdoches, Texas, began closing in late April, and the search headquarters in Lufkin, Texas, closed May 10. The search in Louisiana ended in early April.

NASA will leave a telephone line in operation that people can call to report finding debris. The space agency still gets about 40 calls a week to the hot line, Mr. Whittle said.

He believes there is more debris out there, nestled in remote, unpopulated areas.

“Do I think there is still stuff out west of Texas? Yes. Someone will stumble on them,” he said.

In fact Mr. Whittle still may organize a search of Navajo Lake, a 2-mile-long body of water in the Dixie National Forest in southern Utah. Divers have searched other lakes in the Texas debris field.

It is unlikely recovery crews will find anything from Columbia more important than the data recorder, he said.

The recorder was discovered intact in eastern Texas on March 19. The device contained data, like temperature measurements, from hundreds of sensors throughout the shuttle.

Mr. Whittle also said the space agency was lucky to retrieve so much of the shuttle. He said some predicted NASA would only find 10 to 20 percent of Columbia. In fact they recovered about 40 percent of Columbia, based on its weight without fuel.

“I started feeling pretty good about 40 percent,” he said.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has attributed the high volume of shuttle debris recovered to the thousands of people involved with the exhaustive effort who covered the 2.2 million-acre area in Texas and Louisiana “foot by foot.”

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