- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

HOUSTON, Feb. 3 (UPI) — Damage to the shuttle Columbia's wing during launch is NASA's leading theory about why the spaceship failed to fly safely through the atmosphere as it glided toward a runway in Florida on Saturday to complete what had been a successful 16-day research mission.

"We've asked (investigation teams) to make that assumption and we'll see where that leads us," shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said Monday.

Video taken of the shuttle's launch on Jan. 16 showed a piece of what is thought to be foam insulation falling off the shuttle's external fuel tank and striking Columbia's left wing.

Engineers studied the video repeatedly as Columbia's mission was underway, conducted extensive analysis, and determined the impact was not going to be a safety issue for landing.

"What we believed the worst case to be was perhaps a local penetration, local structural damage, perhaps some local yielding of the structure because of the temperature but not to the degree that it would violate the structural integrity of the wing," said Dittemore.

NBC reported on Monday an internal memo dated Jan. 28 warned of probable localized wing damage, but even if the agency had firm evidence of extensive damage, nothing could have been done to save the crew and the shuttle. The ship's protective outer covering, which consists of heat-resistant tiles, blankets and other materials, cannot be repaired in orbit, nor does NASA have the ability to send spacewalking astronauts to the underside of the spaceship during flight.

Columbia fell from the sky over Texas 16 minutes before its planned landing at the Kennedy Space Center. The seven astronauts aboard were killed. A memorial service is scheduled for Tuesday in Houston.

Also Monday, NASA expanded its search for debris to the Fort Worth, Texas, area and was hoping to find shuttle tiles and other equipment even farther west, which Columbia passed over before its breakup over the eastern part of the state and Louisiana.

The New York Times reported on its Web site late Monday that state and federal officials collecting debris from the shuttle have widened their search area after finding one of the craft's heat-resistant tiles near Fort Worth. Searchers said that they had discovered the shuttle's nose cone near Hemphill, Texas, 225 miles to the east-southeast, near the Louisiana border, the newspaper said.

A second staging area for collection of shuttle debris was set up at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. The primary collection area is at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La.

Investigation teams are struggling to understand a series of temperature readings relayed from the shuttle to ground control computers shortly before the breakup. Engineers have determined sensor readings around the shuttle's left wheel well were quickly climbing — in one case spiking 60 degrees in five minutes — but still not enough to indicate a structural breach.

"Given the fact that the outside temperature on the wing leading edge is 2,000 degrees, these relatively small increases in temperature are telling us something, we're just trying to find out what exactly what they are trying to tell us," said Dittemore.

"Did we have some type of penetration in the wing that the left main landing gear and the left mid-fuselage were just reflecting an overall increase in temperature, but were not the exact point of the penetration? That's what we're trying to figure out," he said. "There's some other missing link that we don't have yet."

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