NASA Seeks Clues in Wing Fragment

Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 9, 2003

Investigators Friday found a two-foot fragment of a wing of the destroyed space shuttle Columbia near Fort Worth, a piece of wreckage they hoped might yield clues to crack open the mystery of the shuttle's disintegration one week ago.

Officials said the fragment included a portion of the wing's leading edge, but they had not yet identified which wing it came from. Possible damage to the leading edge of the left wing is one focus of the inquiry into the chain of events that led to the shuttle's fiery demise.

NASA officials also released a fuzzy black-and-white photo of the shuttle as it flew over New Mexico. Although grainy and somewhat unfocused, it shows what appears to be a trail behind the left wing and a slight protrusion along its leading edge.

The picture, taken by an Air Force tracking camera at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, was considered potentially important because it was taken as telemetry monitored at Mission Control showed sensors in the left wing suddenly shutting down. At the time, the crew reported no problems and the spaceship appeared to be flying normally through its reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

Seconds after the picture was taken, communication with the spacecraft was lost and it disintegrated over Texas.

Shuttle program manager Ronald D. Dittemore said investigators are trying to obtain pictures of previous missions taken from the same location to compare with the new image, to determine whether there is something unusual about the picture.

"These things are not black and white," he told reporters. "You can have a particular photo and someone may draw immediate conclusions, and we don't draw the same conclusions."

The wing wreckage was the first potentially significant piece of evidence of the type NASA investigators have said they need to determine why the Columbia came apart. Officials have been especially keen to recover pieces of the wing, and Michael Kostelnik, NASA's deputy associate administrator, described the find as "significant."

Kostelnik said the fragment included a portion of the black, reinforced carbon-carbon composite that forms the leading edge of the wing and is able to withstand temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit during reentry. Dittemore said the fragment measured 26 inches by 12 inches by 7 inches -- about the size of a medium-size travel suitcase.

The shuttle program manager said 18 inches of the wing structure was still attached, and Kostelnik indicated that a section of insulating tile might also be intact. Each of the 24,000 tiles on the shuttle is numbered, which means that investigators should quickly be able to determine where the fragment came from. It was being taken Friday to the former Carswell Air Force Base outside Dallas, one of two collection sites for the widely scattered wreckage.

Officials at Mission Control reiterated Friday that there was no warning that anything was wrong as Columbia crossed the California coastline one week ago.

While some video footage taken by observers appears to suggest that the shuttle may have been shedding fragments at that point, no confirmed wreckage from Columbia has been found west of Texas, NASA officials said. The crew was apparently unaware of serious trouble until nearly 9 a.m. EST, when the shuttle was over Texas and the last radio transmission from the crew abruptly terminated.

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