- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

Space agency officials said yesterday they didn't know whether a chunk of insulating foam that smacked into the left wing of the Space Shuttle Columbia during takeoff Jan. 16 contributed to the craft's explosion over Texas while it was approaching landing.
But officials said they couldn't discount what they previously thought was an insignificant event more than two weeks ago.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration acknowledged it had few clues to help investigators figure out why the 22-year-old shuttle exploded and disintegrated while re-entering the atmosphere.
For now, suspicion surrounds the foam that peeled off the external fuel tank about a minute after takeoff, because the material could have damaged thermal tiles on the left wing. About 20,000 tiles protected the spacecraft from extreme heat during re-entry.
Shuttle program director Ron Dittemore said investigators would review footage of the takeoff and try to determine whether damage to tiles could have been more significant than first thought.
"As we look at that now in hindsight, we can't discount that there might be a connection. But we have to caution you and ourselves that we can't rush to judgment on it because there are a lot of things in this business that look like the smoking gun but turn out not even to be close," Mr. Dittemore said during a press conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
NASA flight entry director Leroy Cain said Friday that analyses concluded that any damage to tiles or missing tiles from the left wing of the orbiter would be minor.
Even if NASA had concluded damage to tiles was significant, the seven astronauts aboard Columbia would have been unable to make repairs during a spacewalk, Mr. Dittemore said.
Friction during re-entry causes temperatures to reach 3,000 degrees, and ceramic tiles are intended to protect the shuttle's exterior.
The best place to begin the investigation into the explosion is with the shuttle's known weaknesses, former Transportation Department Inspector General Mary Schiavo said.
"They're going to look at the tiles again," she said.
Recovering material from the wreckage will be difficult because debris is spread over a wide area, she said, and that will hinder the investigation.
"It's too early to speculate about the cause. Obviously we're looking at all the data," NASA astronaut Bill Readdy said. "My promise to the crew and the crew's families is that we will find the cause, we'll fix it and we will move on."
The Bush administration dismissed terrorism as the cause of the explosion because Columbia was nearly unreachable at 207,135 feet above the Earth. In addition, it was hurtling along at 12,500 mph.
After the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, investigators discovered that an O-ring seal in a rocket booster broke because of cold weather. That allowed a flame from a rocket booster to ignite fuel in an external tank.
NASA officials also are reviewing why sensors on Columbia failed.
In a span of six minutes, NASA lost readings from temperature, hydraulic-system and tire-pressure sensors.
"Then we knew something was not right," Mr. Dittemore said.

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