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Space Shuttle Columbia

NASA thinks launch debris not 'root cause'

Space shuttle Columbia's nose cone is hauled out of the woods Wednesday near Hemphill, Texas.

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NASA officials say launch debris may have played a role in the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia but most likely was not the root cause. CNN's Miles O'Brien reports (February 6)
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For many, pieces of debris that fell from the space shuttle Columbia serve as reminders of the seven astronauts who lost their lives (February 6)
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A memorial pays tribute to the Columbia astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. (February 4)
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JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Texas (CNN) -- Launch debris may have played a role in the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, but most likely it is not the only explanation, a top NASA spaceflight official said.

The doomed orbiter experienced extreme heat and air drag on its left wing as it hurtled through the atmosphere, but the ship held up pretty well until it suddenly broke up minutes before landing, shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said.

"Right now, it just does not make sense to us that a piece of debris is the root cause to explain the loss of the Columbia crew," Dittemore said at a news conference Wednesday. "There has got to be another reason."

Dittemore said that the mystery lies in what caused the extreme drag on the wing, which the autopilot compensated for with rocket firings and attempting to roll to the right. Some of the final readings from Columbia suggest that it was a losing effort.

"You can see from that loss of signal, that we were beginning to lose the battle," he said.

Damage to heat protective tiles, caused by falling insulation from the external fuel tank soon after launch, had been considered the leading theory in explaining why the shuttle shattered with seven astronauts on Saturday.

The fragility of those tiles has been a question for NASA almost since the shuttle program's inception. In fact, studies in the early 1990s suggested the tiles were vulnerable to a hit from debris during take-off.

Columbia lost a tile to a piece of debris in November 1987, according to a study of the first 33 shuttle missions by Elisabeth Pate-Cornell of Stanford University and Paul Fischbeck of Carnegie Mellon University.

On Wednesday, Fischbeck told CNN's Connie Chung that NASA had improved the tiles since the study.

"I think NASA took some very positive steps based on our report," Fischbeck said. "Whether they did enough or whether they could have done more, that is something I can't say. Any engineered system has associated risks and there's no way to eliminate the risk completely."

Looting alleged

Meanwhile, two people were charged Wednesday with stealing shuttle debris as rainy weather stalled most of the efforts to recover pieces of the spacecraft scattered over at least two states.

In Texas, Merrie Hipp, 43, and Bradley Justin Gaudet, 23, were each charged with one count of theft of government property for allegedly stealing pieces of the shuttle. Hipp was accused of taking a circuit board, and Bradley a piece of inner fabric that acted as a thermal barrier, said U.S. Attorney Mike Shelby in Houston.

Shelby said other people who have failed to turn in pieces of Columbia have until 5 p.m. Friday to do so, or face prosecution. There also are 17 open probes of people who have supposedly tried to sell shuttle debris on the Internet auction site eBay, he said.

With reports of possible debris coming from as far west as California, investigators tracked and gathered more of Columbia's scattered remnants while engineers worked to decipher the orbiter's final, faint 32 seconds of data.

The weather, including intermittent sleet, delayed a helicopter from lifting the front of the shuttle's nose cone from dense woods onto a truck for its journey to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Holly Morgan said. Later, emergency workers succeeded in loading it on the back of a truck.

Merrie Hipp and Bradley Justin Gaudet have been charged with stealing Columbia debris.
Merrie Hipp and Bradley Justin Gaudet have been charged with stealing Columbia debris.

Choppy waters also slowed efforts at the Toledo Bend Reservoir to retrieve a 20-foot-long object that could be part of the shuttle. Witnesses reported seeing a chunk the size of a compact car fall into the reservoir, which straddles Texas and Louisiana.

In Nacogdoches County, Texas, where much of the shuttle fell after it disintegrated Saturday, investigators have cleared 70 high-priority debris sites -- with more than 800 remaining. (Debris map)

"We have located some substantial pieces, including a section of what appears to be one of the wings," said Sheriff Thomas Kerss. "It was about six to seven feet in size."

A NASA team arrived in California Wednesday to collect what may be a piece of debris from Columbia.

If the item -- a 4-inch silver-colored piece with a square hole burned in its center -- is authenticated, it would be the first piece of the shuttle found west of the main debris field in eastern Texas.

Its location is crucial, potentially indicating the piece was one of the first to come off the shuttle and giving investigators an idea about what failed on the orbiter.

A home video shows the shuttle over California, with what appear to be pieces falling off of it as it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. This footage could indicate that Columbia was already in trouble well west of Texas, where its final disintegration occurred.(See the video)

Reconstructing the final seconds

Meanwhile, NASA engineers are trying to reconstruct 32 seconds of data that Columbia transmitted to the ground after computers at Johnson Space Center in Houston lost contact with the shuttle.

NASA officials said the data failed to reach the threshold for the computers to read it, but it was transmitted and recorded, however faintly, elsewhere.

NASA assistant administrator Michael Kostelnik said Tuesday that video shot from a military helicopter of Columbia breaking up over Texas soon will be making its way to investigators at Johnson Space Center.

There also may be Air Force photographs of the shuttle's re-entry that NASA can examine, he said.

The loss of the shuttle resulted in the deaths of Columbia commander Rick Husband; pilot William McCool; payload commander Michael Anderson; mission specialists David Brown, Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla; and Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.

In Delaware, remains from the shuttle crew arrived Wednesday for experts at the National Mortuary to begin work on identifying them, officials said.

The military C-141 aircraft carrying seven "transfer cases" landed at the base at 2:35 p.m., according to Col. Scott Wuesthoff. Six of the cases were draped in American flags, the seventh in an Israeli flag.

Dover officials said none of remains have been identified, but the Israel Defense Forces announced that NASA had informed an Israeli representative in Houston that those of Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, had been ascertained. There are conflicting reports whether NASA has confirmed that. (Full story)

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