- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

Recovery crews may have just one month to find fragments of the Space Shuttle Columbia because the growth of plants and crops will conceal undiscovered pieces of the spacecraft, the head of the U.S. space agency said yesterday.
"A lot of things are going to grow over [debris] real fast. Over the next 30 days is our best window," said Sean O'Keefe, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Mr. O'Keefe made his remarks at Stennis Space Center, the Mississippi facility where 4,600 people test the main engines that power the space shuttle.
NASA and other federal agencies are bolstering their efforts to recover debris before warm, wet weather causes a burst of grass and other foliage. The agency plans to open four camps between Dallas and the Texas-Louisiana border and assign an estimated 4,000 people to the rural outposts while the search continues.
Camps have been set up in the Texas towns of Corsicana, Hemphill, Nacogdoches and Palestine.
Recovery crews also will modify their search by using new methods to look for fragments on the Texas terrain. The crews are focusing search efforts on a 240-square-mile area. Under the new approach, crews will stand 20 feet apart and proceed one step at a time while they comb the ground for evidence.
"They felt this would be the most efficient way. We want to make sure we can see the ground before the greenery sprouts," said Win Henderson, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In addition, teams of about 20 trained wilderness firefighters are joining the search. The firefighters come from 11 states, including Virginia.
Retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., the head of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said this week that investigators need much more debris from the shuttle to help piece together the cause of its fiery descent over Texas three weeks ago.
An estimated 3,500 people are participating in the recovery effort, many from federal agencies.
U.S. Navy personnel continue to search Toledo Bend Reservoir on the border between Texas and Louisiana.
In addition to speaking with NASA workers at Stennis Space Center, Mr. O'Keefe yesterday made an unscheduled stop at a Lockheed Martin Corp. facility in New Orleans that has come under scrutiny since the shuttle disaster. Mr. O'Keefe said he wanted to reassure workers at the Michoud Assembly Facility that the space agency isn't vilifying them.
Workers at the Michoud plant apply foam insulation to the shuttle's external fuel tanks.
A leading theory surrounding the Columbia disaster is that a piece of insulation that came off the tank during liftoff caused enough damage to the shuttle's left wing to create a breach and allow gas to penetrate the wing.



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