- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 18 (UPI) — Radio contact already lost, the final 32 seconds of data culled from ground computers tracking shuttle Columbia show a spaceship firing extra steering jets in a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to straighten its wings and remain on course for a landing in Florida, according to data released by accident investigators Tuesday.

Analysts have been able to salvage about five seconds' worth of additional data about the shuttle, which broke up over Texas on Feb. 1, killing seven astronauts. Initially, the data show two thruster jets firing to counteract an excessive and uneven drag on the shuttle's left side. In the final second of telemetry from the shuttle, a third and then a fourth thruster jet joined the losing tug-of-war to steady the ship.

"That is an unusual thing," said James Hallock, chief of the Department of Transportation's Aviation Safety Division, who is serving on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. "When you get up to the point where you have three, and then four of these (thrusters) firing, then things are really starting to happen fast."

The telemetry is among key evidence being collected by the investigation team tasked to determine the root cause of the accident as well as any contributing factors. Panel Chairman Harold Gehman says his team is casting a wide net, looking simultaneously into budget issues, management practices, the aging of the shuttle fleet as well as technical, engineering and scientific issues that may have affected the orbiter's performance.

"No matter what we find here, the report we write will be deep enough and rich enough that it will be the foundation for a good intellectual debate about what we (as a country) do next," Gehman said.

Gehman also confirmed the panel has obtained pictures of the shuttle taken by a high-resolution Air Force telescope in Hawaii. He said the images show no apparent damage to the untrained eye, but specialists were studying the photographs to determine whether the shuttle showed any signs of damage before it approached the California coast.

Eyewitnesses have filed reports and sent videotapes and photographs of debris shedding from the orbiter as it crossed the western United States. So far, attempts to locate debris that may have fallen west of Fort Worth, Texas, have been unsuccessful.

About 14,000 pieces of wreckage have been recovered from Texas and Louisiana, with almost 4,000 pieces already transferred to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for analysis and reconstruction efforts. Gehman said the total weight of the debris represents only a tiny fraction of the entire ship and its contents.

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