- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

HOUSTON (AP) The board investigating the destruction of Space Shuttle Columbia said yesterday it wanted to know more about a mysterious object that almost certainly fell off the shuttle and was flying alongside the spacecraft in its second day in orbit.
Meanwhile, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said late last night that a videotape from inside Columbia's cockpit had been recovered from the wreckage and showed four of the astronauts just before their ship began experiencing trouble.
Thirteen minutes of tape were preserved; the rest was burned. The tape ends four minutes after Columbia's atmospheric entry, while the shuttle is still over the Pacific and flying normally.
An official close to the investigation said nothing in the videotape sheds any light on Columbia's impending doom and it shows the astronauts putting on their gloves and chatting normally.
Neither the official nor a NASA spokeswoman knew where, when or how the tape was discovered, but it was thought to have been found in Texas in the past week.
The board knew about the videotape for the past several days but did not discuss it at its weekly news conference yesterday afternoon, the official said, because it wanted to give NASA time to show the footage to the astronauts' families.
NASA plans to release copies to journalists later this week.
The object orbiting near Columbia never was noticed during the flight. After the shuttle's destruction over Texas on Feb. 1, the Air Force Space Command began analyzing radar data that might shed light on the disaster and noticed the object.
NASA said it initially suspected the object might be frozen wastewater dumped overboard or an orbiting piece of space junk that the shuttle happened to encounter.
But Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, a board member, discounted both possibilities yesterday and said the object almost had to have come from the shuttle itself.
"You or I could invent a dozen scenarios," Gen. Deal said. "It could have been something loose that separated, it could have been something inside the payload bay."
It also could have been part of the left wing, where the overheating and other troubles developed during re-entry.
Gen. Deal described the object as about 1 foot by 1.3 feet in size and said it was flying in tandem with Columbia one day into the mission. It was within 50 feet of the shuttle and, within that first day, started separating farther and farther away until it burned up on re-entry three days later, he said.


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