- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

HOUSTON (AP) Investigators are trying to identify an object spotted near Columbia shortly after it reached orbit as they try to determine what caused the shuttle to break apart.
Retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., who is leading an independent board investigating the disaster, told reporters yesterday that the tracking data from the U.S. Space Command Center in Nebraska could be water that is dumped routinely from the shuttle. The water may have turned to ice.
"It could well have been an on-orbit piece associated with the shuttle which was supposed to have been there," Adm. Gehman said. He stressed that the report still needs to be analyzed.
Meanwhile, investigators continued to study a 2-foot-long section of Columbia's wing and a 300-pound object that appears to be a door panel from one of the shuttle's wheel wells found in Texas.
The wing includes the carbon-covered edge designed to protect Columbia's insulating tiles during re-entry and could provide hard evidence of what went wrong, National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief Sean O'Keefe said Saturday.
Adm. Gehman would not comment yesterday on whether the wing piece was from the shuttle's left side, which could prove significant because Columbia's troubles began in the left wing.
In the shuttle's final eight minutes the morning of Feb. 1, temperatures surged in the left landing gear compartment, and the brake lines began overheating one by one. Sensors began showing overheating across other areas of the left wing and adjoining fuselage before Mission Control lost all contact.
Mr. O'Keefe spoke after a memorial service at Louisiana's Barksdale Air Force Base, where pieces of the shuttle are being stored. Searchers have recovered remains of all seven astronauts and more than 12,000 pieces of debris that rained down across two states.
Despite the loss of Columbia and its crew, more than seven in 10 Americans say the space shuttle program is worth the risk in human life and should be continued, say polls taken after the disintegration of the shuttle.
A CNN/Time poll out this weekend found that 71 percent said the shuttle program is worth the risk to the astronauts; a CBS News poll found that three-fourths of Americans said the program should be continued; and in a poll by the Orlando Sentinel in Florida, three-fourths said the shuttle program was somewhat or very important to the nation's future.
A majority of people also say the shuttle program contributes much to the nation's sense of pride and patriotism, and about one-third think it contributes much to science, the CBS poll found. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed in the Sentinel poll said the shuttle program is worth the cost, and 35 percent disagreed.
People seemed relatively satisfied with the level being spent by the government and were divided evenly on whether the government should spend the billions of dollars needed to build a replacement shuttle, the polls suggested.
The CBS poll of 831 adults was taken Wednesday and Thursday. The CNN/Time poll of 1,003 adults was taken Thursday. The Sentinel poll of 1,000 adults was taken Tuesday through Thursday.
The polls all had error margins of plus or minus three percentage points.

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