- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

Space agency officials have found little to help them reconstruct the Space Shuttle Columbia or piece together why it exploded six days ago.
People have combed through woods and waded through reservoirs in Texas and Louisiana. Federal officials have pulled debris from roads, schools, pastures and ditches. But the massive recovery effort has yielded only a fraction of Columbia.
None of the estimated 12,000 pieces of debris found in Texas and Louisiana has provided clues to explain the shuttle's explosion. Columbia was composed of about 2 million parts.
"It will be virtually impossible to find a majority of the aircraft," said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials aren't giving up hope, even though the absence of evidence would complicate the difficult investigation and place greater importance on data from on-board computers.
"The orbiter is a very large vehicle. We are remaining optimistic that we will be able to recover lots of it," said NASA spokesman Dave Steitz.
But NASA faces the possibility of recovering little of Columbia because it exploded 39 miles above the Earth, spreading debris across a vast area.
Federal officials have confirmed finding shuttle fragments in 47 counties in Texas and 18 parishes in Louisiana. There are reports of debris in California and Arizona.
Numerous space agency officials have vowed to track down the cause of the explosion. But space shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore has acknowledged that investigators have been unable to find any of Columbia's key pieces.
"We're still looking for that elusive missing piece," he said.
Mr. Dittemore said the key items NASA hopes to recover include pieces of the left wing, tiles and data recorders.
For now, NASA's investigation will continue without significant pieces of the spacecraft.
"The primary debris area is rural and heavily wooded. Accessibility is a problem, and it's complicated by the fact that it's raining," said Dave Bary, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, which is heading the effort to collect hazardous material from the shuttle.
Some of Columbia's fragments are as small as a nickel.
Scouring areas on foot and on horseback still is the best method to search for debris, underscoring that the search will require a massive human effort, Mr. Bary said.
"You can't beat a pair of eyes," he said.
People have made erroneous reports. A boy in Texas led a group combing through some woods to an alternator from a car engine. What appeared to be a piece of debris found in Louisiana turned out to be a mud flap from a truck. A woman in Louisiana called police to report an egg yolk on her porch and wondered if the astronauts had eggs on the shuttle. In Yuma, Ariz., a person reported debris, but it turned out to be a piece of burnt toast.
The U.S. Coast Guard yesterday had divers search Toledo Bend Reservoir, on the Texas-Louisiana border, after Coast Guard sensors detected the presence of three pieces of material in the water that investigators believe could be shuttle remnants.
"It's a shot in the dark," Mr. Dittemore said.
The lack of evidence will place greater significance on data collected by Columbia's on-board computers, said Bernard Loeb, former director of the National Transportation Safety Board's office of aviation safety.
The information was downloaded to Johnson Space Center in Houston before the explosion.
"Since there's so much [electronic] data, I have little doubt that it has given them a good indication about what to look for. The more wreckage they get, the better off they'll be. But even if they don't get pieces, they can still reach conclusions and have confidence in them," Mr. Loeb said.
Mr. Steitz said recovery of materials was preferable, but electronic data is equally useful.
"Recovery is important. We also have a vast amount of data, and all of that can be used as part of the investigation. There's a lot of information we're looking at in addition to the spacecraft itself," he said.
Mr. Goelz, managing director at the NTSB during the investigation of TWA Flight 800, which exploded over Long Island, N.Y., in 1996, said finding the first pieces that fell off Columbia would greatly improve NASA's investigation.
"But in this case that's going to be very difficult," he said.
That's because NASA has little idea where the shuttle was when it began to break apart.
The NTSB recovered about 95 percent of TWA flight 800, which exploded, killing all 230 on board.
NASA "will get nowhere near" 95 percent, Mr. Goelz said.

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