Probe starts with tiles
By Kathy Sawyer and Don Phillips
From the moment the space shuttle Columbia streaked through the fringes of space over California Saturday morning, onboard instruments showed a sharp temperature spike on the orbiter's left side, and by the time it crossed over New Mexico its flight-control system was registering the most extreme steering adjustments ever seen in a descending shuttle.
Japanese scientist Yutaka Takumi, from Shinshu University, bowed in prayer at the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Fla., yesterday. He came to pay his respects to the seven Columbia crew members.
The new details appeared to paint a picture of a spacecraft that was running into trouble almost as it soon as it began its plunge back into Earth's atmosphere after a 16-day flight.
NASA's accelerating probe of the crash has not yet pinpointed a cause for the unusual readings, Dittemore said.
But one possible source was rough or missing pieces of the shuttle's insulating tile at a crucial spot. Investigators are looking carefully at the possibility that the damage began when a piece of soft insulating foam struck the left wing after shearing away from the shuttle's external tank 80 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 16.
One day after the shocking loss, multiple investigations were getting organized yesterday while "mishap response" teams gathered at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., and in Lufkin, Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas, to help collect information and debris. And in a number of NASA centers, numerous engineering teams were burrowing deeper and deeper into the available data from the flight.
A helmet believed to have fallen from the space shuttle Columbia lies in a field near Lufkin, Texas.
As they delve more deeply into the recorded data, he said, analysts expect to extract perhaps another half minute or so of data from the shuttle's final seconds.
Although the potential tile damage has drawn considerable attention, he said, engineers could not rule out other possibilities such as a structural or flight-control system failure.
"We've got some more detective work, but we're making progress inch by inch," he said.
The sensor data showed that at 8:53 a.m. EST Saturday, as the shuttle passed over California, temperatures rose 20 to 30 degrees in five minutes inside the shuttle's left wheel well.
"This is significant," he said, because the measurements were taken in a spot particularly vulnerable to heat if the tile shielding is failing. It was the first significant episode of unusual heating in the descent.
At 8:54 a.m. EST, over eastern California and western Nevada, areas on the left fuselage around the wing also showed an unusual temperature rise. While the shuttle's right side showed a routine 15-degree rise, the left side warmed 60 degrees. Inside the shuttle's cargo bay, temperatures were normal.
Wink Miller looks at a piece of the shuttle found near Hemphill, Texas.
At 8:59 a.m. EST, over west Texas, there was another increase in drag on the left side, indicated by the flight-control system's struggle to counter the drag by commanding the vehicle to roll to the right.
Then the shuttle's radio signal was lost.
NASA yesterday called on the public on the West Coast to provide photos or video of the shuttle as it hurtled overhead. Dittemore said the agency has statements from several people who thought they saw something separate from the shuttle.
As he spoke to reporters at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, accident investigators were converging on key points in Texas and Louisiana, and a partnership of federal and local agencies were trying to corral the debris of the fallen shuttle now vital forensic evidence that lay strewn on roofs, in cow pastures and parking lots.
Tommy Peltier and daughter Alexis approach a large piece of shuttle debris that fell close to their home near San Augustine, Texas.
Retired U.S. Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman, Jr., who headed the investigation of the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in late 2000, will lead the independent investigation, one of several focusing on the shuttle accident.
The National Transportation Safety Board has sent six investigators to help with the effort, including two men who worked on the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 Robert Benzon and Frank Hilldrup and the board's forensics expert, Frank Ciaccio, who normally assists coroners in body part identification.
Under usual safety board procedures, local authorities are told to move wreckage only when necessary to recover human remains. Otherwise, the wreckage remains in place until an experienced investigator can examine it, photograph it from all angles and document its exact location by Global Positioning Satellite coordinates.
Radar records of the shuttle's thunderous descent will play a major role in documenting the in-flight breakup and the location of wreckage, experts said.