- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Magnetic tape from Space Shuttle Columbia's flight data recorder shows few signs of damage, raising hopes that investigators will find new clues about the orbiter's final moments.

Workers at a Minnesota technology company peeled open Columbia's flight data recorder over the weekend. They are cleaning 9,400 feet of magnetic tape inside that have readings from 800 sensors scattered throughout the shuttle.

The data recorder is the most significant piece of debris from the shuttle that recovery crews have discovered. It still was not clear whether information on it could be retrieved or if it was damaged in the Feb. 1 disaster that killed all seven astronauts.

"We're optimistic we can get data from it. Everything looks pretty good," NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said.

Employees at Imation Corp., in Oakdale, Minn., are cleaning the magnetic tape by immersing it in filtered, deionized water, then drying it by hand.

"It's fairly low-tech because a lot of care is being taken not to damage it," Imation spokesman Bradley Allen said.

The data recorder was found intact last week on a hill near Hemphill, Texas. The 58-pound device showed evidence of fire damage, and the tape inside was slightly damaged. Mr. Allen said the tape was broken between the two reels inside the data recorder. A portion of the tape next to the break is stretched.

Imation, which makes magnetic tape for data storage, will complete its cleaning of the tape this week.

"It's a matter of days, not weeks," Mr. Allen said.

Once the company's work is complete, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will transport the tape to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where the space agency has equipment to copy the information recorded. When that work is finished, engineers at Johnson Space Center in Houston will begin to analyze the data.

NASA delivered the data recorder to Imation late Friday on one of its own aircraft.

Information on the tape came from engineering sensors that measured temperatures, aerodynamic pressure, strains on the shuttle and vibrations. The recorder was used to collect readings from the sensors only during takeoff and during descent. It was activated during an 18-minute period stretching from 12 minutes before launch to six minutes after launch, then turned off.

It was activated again about 15 minutes before Columbia re-entered Earth's atmosphere. The recorder is intended to collect data for the final 75 minutes of flight.

Engineering data could provide a more complete picture, said Michael Barr, director of the University of Southern California's aviation safety program.

"I think it will help them solve this. It will not be the silver bullet that tells them why it happened, but it will lead them in the right direction," Mr. Barr said.

The 17-by-22-inch box that held the recorder was stored under the floor of Columbia's cabin. Columbia was the only orbiter in the shuttle fleet equipped with the device because the recorder was modified after Columbia was built.

Meanwhile, Michael Kostelnik, head of the space shuttle and International Space Station programs, said at NASA headquarters yesterday that the agency would look into ways to keep its three remaining space shuttles flying until 2022.

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