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Wing Piece From Shuttle, NASA Says

Space agency identifies the fragment as being part of Columbia, but it is not known how the find will fit into solving the puzzle.

February 11, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A space shuttle fragment recovered last week has been positively identified as a piece of Columbia's left wing, where sensors recorded a series of temperature spikes and other failures moments before the craft disintegrated, NASA said Monday.

The wing fragment is regarded as the most valuable find in a painstaking hunt over hundreds of miles of territory, but a senior NASA official said it was still too early to tell how the piece would ultimately fit into the puzzle.

"Our own experts are having a difficult time determining what some of these objects are," said Michael Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator for the shuttle and a retired Air Force major general.

Hopes for another significant find were dashed Monday evening. Early in the day, field investigators reported locating one of five "general purpose computers" responsible for flying the shuttle. But it turned out to be another type of wreckage, not a GPC.

"I don't have word yet on what it is," said Al Feinberg, a spokesman at NASA's Washington headquarters.

The wing fragment includes about 2 feet of the wing's leading edge, which is covered by panels of a reinforced carbon material designed to withstand 3,000-degree temperatures. There is also about an 18-inch portion of the wing structure itself.

Kostelnik said there was "uncertainty among the people who recovered it" about what part of the wing they were looking at.

Investigators are keenly interested in the area near where the wing joined Columbia's fuselage, because during launch it was struck by a piece of insulating foam that broke off the shuttle's external fuel tank.

Analysis of launch films and calculations by mission control engineers led to predictions that there might be some damage to the wing's heat-resistant tiles, but no risk of catastrophic failure.

An Air Force photograph of the shuttle during reentry shows what some analysts believe to be a deformation in the leading edge of the left wing near where it joins the fuselage, as well as a plume of debris trailing it.

But NASA officials are skeptical that damage during launch led to the loss of Columbia. They say they are also uncertain about the quality of the image from the Air Force camera, which was based on the ground.

Investigators have ruled nothing out, and NASA is also trying to find out whether Columbia could have been hit by a tiny meteorite at some point in the flight, or whether frozen wastewater from the shuttle could have caused damage during orbit.

The piece of wing was found east of Corsicana, Texas, southeast of Dallas. Officials initially had said they believed it had come from the western edge of the debris field. That would have made it even more significant, since pieces farther to the west are more likely to have been shed from the craft first.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the agency was beginning to truck shuttle wreckage to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where investigators hope to reassemble as much as they can in a hangar.

A milestone for the investigation could come Wednesday, when O'Keefe heads to Capitol Hill to testify before a joint hearing of the House and Senate committees that oversee NASA.

If many lawmakers express skepticism about the independence of the probe, the Bush administration may be forced to revamp the Columbia investigative board, now composed of current and former government officials. By contrast, the panel that investigated the 1986 Challenger disaster was dominated by experts from the private sector.

Also Monday, NASA officials said they were considering a host of changes to the programs that support the international space station.

The shuttle is a key source of supplies and personnel to the space station, and Columbia's destruction has raised concerns about the station's future.

Capt. Bill Readdy, a former test pilot and NASA's associate administrator for spaceflight, said NASA was considering asking for help from other countries' space programs, particularly those in Japan and Canada.

Although the space station has enough food, water and fuel to sustain its crew until June, the three-man complement may be reduced to two, at least temporarily, NASA officials said.

Space officials may also scramble to increase the number of Russian "Progress" missions that are also used to supplement supplies, particularly water, to the space station.

"We're looking at all our options right now," Readdy said. "It's not a matter of real urgency," because the space station and its crew can operate for at least several months without another visit from the ground.

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