- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., March 4 (UPI) — Identifying the exact location of a breach in shuttle Columbia's left wing is key to understanding the cause of the accident, a member of the accident investigation board said Tuesday.

"Our job is just beginning," said accident investigator Roger Tetrault, former vice chairman and chief executive of McDermott International Inc. "What we have to do is follow the heat. We will be doing this in order to back into the location of the original breach in the wing," he said.

"We have more questions than answers right now," Tetrault added, "but we're getting smarter fast and I think there is a very good chance that we will in fact be able to localize the breach that occurred in the left wing. We certainly need to do this in order to determine the cause of the accident. Until we have determined that location of the breach every postulated cause of the accident is really just a theory."

Shuttle Columbia was hurtling through the skies at 18 times the speed of sound the morning of Feb. 1, en route to a landing strip in Florida when it was ripped to pieces by aerodynamic forces over East Texas. Seven astronauts aboard the spacecraft were killed.

Recovery of wreckage continues to be a high priority for the accident investigation team, which is headed by Harold Gehman, a retired Naval admiral. Most of the debris was found in Texas and Louisiana, though analysis of radar data taken during Columbia's descent indicates unknown components were falling off the shuttle several minutes before it reached Texas. The team is particularly interested in a large piece of debris thought to have reached the ground near Caliente, Nev.

Among the debris recovered so far are all six of shuttle Columbia's tires, nearly all of the right-side landing gear door and a part of the door frame to the left landing gear door, as well as part of the leading edge of the left wing. Tetrault said the left tires show a "significant difference in appearance" than the right tires.

"Both tires on the left side … look like they've gone through extreme trauma," he said. "The ones on the right side are more typical of what I understand is normal in an aircraft accident where it has a blowout in one area."

Tetrault said it is possible the left tires blew out in the wheel well, sometime after communications with the shuttle were lost and the ship began to break up.

"That likely would have been a very catastrophic event," said Tetrault.

Analysis of part of the recovered reinforced carbon-carbon left wing shows melted deposits of aluminum and stainless steel — materials used in the shuttle's structure. Scientists have not yet determined if the metals melted onto the wing's leading edge during the heat of atmospheric re-entry or before the shuttle's destruction.

Traces of aluminum also have been identified on recovered thermal tiles that are thought to have been part of the exterior covering of the left wing. Another piece of recovered debris, part of the left wing's moveable flap, has a hole in it, though investigators believe it was caused during re-entry and is not directly part of the accident scenario.

"The analysis is getting more sophisticated and we're doing more of it," said Gehman. "The problem is that since we don't know where we are going, we don't know how far along the road we are. We're investigating everything right now because we don't want to leave any stone unturned."

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