CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 7 (UPI) — NASA on Friday released an image taken about a minute before shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas last Saturday, killing its seven-member crew.
The grainy black-and-white picture, taken by an Air Force tracking camera at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico as part of a routine exercise, shows a difference between the shuttle’s left and right wings, but nothing that clearly indicates left wing structural damage to an untrained eye, said shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore.
Air Force photographs of the shuttle showing left wing damage was reported by Aviation Week and Space Technology earlier Friday.
In its Feb. 10 issue, the magazine says: “According to sources close to the investigation, the images, under analysis at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, show a jagged edge on the left inboard wing structure near where the wing begins to intersect the fuselage.
“They also show the orbiter’s right aft yaw thrusters firing, trying to correct the vehicle’s attitude that was being adversely affected by the left wing damage. Columbia’s fuselage and right wing appear normal. Unlike the damaged and jagged left wing section, the right wing appears smooth along its entire length. The imagery is consistent with telemetry,” the report states.
What caused the wing damage is not known — a crack or a damaged heat shielding are among the possibilities. But whatever the cause, “the damage affected the vehicle’s flying qualities as well as allowed hot gases to flow into critical wing structure — a fatal combination,” the magazine reports.
NASA’s deputy associate administrator for space flight Michael Kostelnik said he has no knowledge of high-resolution photos taken of Columbia during its descent into the atmosphere. The shuttle was 16 minutes away from a landing in Florida when radio and communications with ground control teams were severed.
Also Friday, NASA said that a “significant portion” of one of the spaceship’s wings has been found near Fort Worth, Texas. NASA had not yet confirmed whether the panel, which is 26 to 27 inches in length with 18 inches of wing structure still attached, was from the shuttle’s left side, which had several high temperature readings and sensor malfunctions before Columbia fell from the sky, or the right.
In addition to thousands of pieces of debris in Texas and Louisiana, NASA is investigating 350 reports of debris in California, Arizona and New Mexico, which the shuttle passed over minutes before its demise over Texas. NASA has investigated and cleared 16 of those reports by Friday, with no confirmations that the debris was from Columbia.
“As this week closes, we need to recognize that we have begun to open a new chapter in this investigation process, said Dittemore. “It’s been a frustrating week, the emotion has run high, the disappointment cannot be overstated. We’ve gone through these memorials. It’s been difficult for our team, but it has been beneficial because it’s the beginning of a healing process.
“Here we are today, a week later, and we are focused on solving the problem,” added Dittemore, who pledged his teams’ support to the independent board taking over the investigation. “We have a tremendous amount of work to do.”