- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

New data may reveal what happened until three seconds before Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated Feb. 1, extending what investigators know about the orbiter's final moments.

A preliminary review of the data recorder by engineers at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., indicates that magnetic tape in the data recorder has readings from a network of 721 sensors throughout Columbia as late as 18 seconds after 9 a.m. EST Feb. 1.

That is 14 seconds later than readings from other sensors.

The main body of Columbia broke up at 21 seconds after 9 a.m., and a separate set of sensors provided readings until four seconds after 9 a.m.

But the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and investigators are after more than just the 14 seconds worth of data from the end of Columbia's flight. The presence of a signal on the data recorder's magnetic tape means there could be a trove of new information about Columbia, NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said.

"It certainly could be very significant," Mr. Hartsfield said.

The flight data recorder was activated for one hour and 26 minutes during liftoff Jan. 16 and Columbia's descent Feb. 1, when all seven astronauts died as the shuttle disintegrated over Texas.

Engineers at the Kennedy Space Center discovered the presence of a magnetic signal while copying the tape. It still is not clear whether the data will provide useful clues.

"All we have is very fundamental knowledge that there is data, but we don't know what it says," said Matthew Cavagnaro, a NASA spokesman at Kennedy Space Center.

A copy of the tape will be shipped to the Johnson Space Center in Houston today, but engineers may not begin interpreting the data until Wednesday, Mr. Hartsfield said.

Scott Hubbard, a member of the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board and director of NASA's Ames Research Center in California, said Wednesday at the board's press conference the flight data recorder could be a "gold mine" of information.

Investigators believe a piece of debris that shed from the shuttle's external fuel tank slammed into Columbia's left wing, causing a breach that allowed superheated gases to penetrate the body of the orbiter.

Columbia's flight data recorder has 9,400 feet of magnetic tape, but about 15 inches is damaged, Mr. Hubbard said.

The 721 sensors take temperature, aerodynamic pressure and vibration readings.

The 58-pound flight data recorder was found last week near Hemphill, Texas. Magnetic tape in the recorder was cleaned by workers over the weekend at Imation Corp. in Minnesota.

Information on the magnetic tape also could prove useful because data from other sensors is sketchy. Col. Rick D. Husband's final voice transmission was cut off at 32 seconds after 8:59 a.m. There is another 32 seconds worth of garbled data from a group of sensors that measure Columbia's pitch, roll and yaw whether it is moving left or right, spinning, or going up and down.

A two-second burst of data at the end of the 32-second stream proved useful, but other information from the sensors was unreliable.

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