NASA officials said yesterday that the exterior of the flight data recorder that was recovered Wednesday near Hemphill, Tex., is in remarkably good condition -- raising hopes that its contents will provide clues to the cause of the fiery breakup of the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1.

NASA engineers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston spent the day poring over the black metal box -- which looks much like a VCR with wires dangling from the back -- and began devising a protocol for extracting vital information on the aerodynamic pressure, temperature and vibrations aboard the orbiter during its final minutes.

"The good thing was that it was recovered fully intact," said Glenn Mahone, NASA's assistant administrator for public affairs. "We, like the [investigative] board, are excited and ready to see what the recorder is ready to reveal, if anything."

Tyrone Woodyard, a spokesman for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said, "The box looks like it's in pretty good condition from the outside, but we're concerned that it went through an intense heating process as it came back. We hope it didn't sustain any significant heat damage. Everyone is cautiously optimistic this will provide us with some key information."

NASA officials said they won't know until late next week at the earliest whether engineers are successful in retrieving data from the recorder's tape. Engineers yesterday cleaned the instrument, but rather than playing it back normally -- running it over the tape head -- they intend to develop a special testing scheme for salvaging the data.

The shuttle was subjected to thousands of degrees of heat during reentry, and there is no way to immediately determine whether the flight recorder's tape melted or was demagnetized during the breakup.

A NASA debris recovery team found the box standing upright on a damp earthen slope about seven miles west of Hemphill on Wednesday afternoon. The device is the near equivalent of a "black box" carried by many aircraft and was designed specifically for the Columbia, to record information from liftoff and then be turned on 10 minutes before reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

"If it provides them with the data that gives them a convincing explanation of the sequence of the orbiter breakup, it may help them to narrow down what needs to be fixed," said John Pike, a space technology expert.

The accident most likely was triggered when a breach on or near the leading edge of the left wing enabled superheated gases to penetrate to the interior of the structure, setting up a chain of events that led to the disaster, according to investigators. The damage may have been caused, or aggravated, by debris that came off the shuttle's external tank and struck the area of the left wing during the Jan. 16 liftoff.

Columbia's flight data recorder, found intact Wednesday near Hemphill, Tex., was designed to capture information about the space shuttle's liftoff and landing.