- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

NASA officials yesterday presented the independent panel investigating the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster with a "likely scenario" of the orbiter's destruction during a closed-door meeting in Houston.
Neither independent investigators nor NASA officials publicly outlined the space agency's hypothesis.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineers and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board will continue to explore other scenarios to explain the loss of the shuttle and seven astronauts Feb. 1.
"We're trying to figure out what facts are clear," said an accident investigator who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The accident investigation board hasn't established its own theory, but it believes the sequence began when foam insulation peeled from the shuttle's external fuel tank and hit the leading edge of Columbia's left wing during the shuttle's ascent.
The board believes a seal from the leading edge of the left wing or part of a seal or adjoining panel was damaged by the foam that broke off the shuttle's fuel tank 81 seconds after liftoff Jan. 16. Something floated away from the orbiting shuttle one day later and might have been the piece on the wing that was struck.
Accident investigators said yesterday a 10-inch piece of the seal in question apparently has been identified in the wreckage at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That could mean either the rest of that seal or an adjoining seal or partial wing panel is what drifted away.
Another accident investigator, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said independent panel and NASA investigators did agree on several facts, including that an impact by some material caused a breach in Columbia's left wing, allowing heat to penetrate the shuttle.
"We know that there was an impact. Heat got in through a breach," he said after the meeting with NASA.
The two groups haven't agreed that foam insulation from the fuel tank caused the breach, the investigation board member said.
But the board member downplayed differences between the two groups.
"It's really not us versus them," he said.
In tests next month, investigators will shoot pieces of foam at carbon panels to help determine if the insulation could have pierced the panels that line the leading edge of the wing.
The investigation board said it won't be able to come up with a "working scenario" that explains what happened to Columbia until it analyzes more data. First they need to look at results from next month's foam-impact tests. From there, investigators will test carbon panels used on previous shuttle flights and conduct metallurgical analysis of recovered debris.
Until all that analysis is complete, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board won't be prepared to come up with a final scenario to explain the loss.
During yesterday's closed-door meeting, NASA's accident-investigation team also presented the independent panel with an update on information recorded by sensors and stored on Columbia's flight-data recorder.
The independent panel hopes to use temperature readings from the network of 721 sensors to determine the path of scorching atmospheric gases that penetrated the shuttle's left wing.
But investigators are struggling to interpret the data and are unsure how much of it is reliable.
"I want to find out what data can I really hang my hat on," one of the independent investigators said.

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