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Space Shuttle Columbia

Shuttle recovery teams redeployed

Hundreds shifted away from Nacogdoches County

A public safety officer waves down a National Guard truck as he collects items believed to be from the shuttle near San Augustine, Texas, on Thursday.
A public safety officer waves down a National Guard truck as he collects items believed to be from the shuttle near San Augustine, Texas, on Thursday.

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NACOGDOCHES, Texas (CNN) -- More than half of those searching for Columbia debris in Nacogdoches County were reassigned Saturday to neighboring counties.

NASA wants to redirect efforts to "some key areas" that need to be searched "in a very timely fashion," according to Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss.

A swath of eastern Texas that includes Nacogdoches, Sabine, and San Augustine counties has yielded thousands of pieces of debris, large and small, from the shuttle disaster.

Kerss said the redeployments had reduced his field search staff from more than 600 to about 300.

Dwayne Brown, spokesman at the regional recovery command center in Lufkin, Texas, said he was "not aware of any debris sites that have been deemed of critical significance" in Sabine County.

Kerss said all of the National Guard troops deployed in his county and "additional" National Guard troops had been sent eastward to San Augustine County during the past week.

Kerss also said that nine reports of people finding shuttle debris and not turning it in had been identified for further investigation after a grace period for people to turn in the debris without penalty expired Friday night. A total of 172 items were turned in during the grace period. (Full story)

Taking shuttle debris, which is federal property, carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The cases have been turned over to the assistant U.S. district attorney's office in Lufkin, Kerss said.

NASA studies Air Force photos

NASA officials said Friday that they were examining photographs taken by an Air Force tracking camera shortly before the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated but were not yet convinced that they held the secrets to the final moments of the fatal flight.

An aviation magazine reported Friday that the images, captured about a minute before the shuttle broke apart, show a jagged edge near where the left wing intersects the fuselage.

The damage to the left wing indicated either a small structural breach, such as a crack, or that a small piece of the wing's leading edge fell off, according to the report in "Aviation Week & Space Technology." Columbia's right wing and fuselage appear normal in the photographs, the magazine said.

But in a NASA briefing Friday afternoon, space shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore showed one of the photographs and said the camera's resolution created the choppiness seen on the left wing. He also said that experts had yet to establish whether the distortion of Columbia's shape seen in the photographs indicated a fault or was the result of the angle from which the images were taken.

"It is not clear to me that it reveals anything significant at the moment," he said.

The orbiter, with seven astronauts onboard, broke up last Saturday over Texas during re-entry shortly after intense heat and air resistance were reported by sensors on its left wing.

Recovery crews found a "leading edge" of one of the shuttle's wings, but it was not yet clear which one, Mike Kostelnik, a deputy associate NASA administrator, said Friday.

Other developments

• 1,218 debris sites have been identified in Nacogdoches County, and reports of new sites have dwindled to about 11 phone calls per hour. Kerss said he hopes to have debris from most sites taken to collection areas this weekend.

• Lab tests are being conducted on material "strongly suspected" of being human remains found at nine sites.

• Six NASA engineers arrived Saturday to help, as did about 60 ham radio operators who will help with field communications.

• At least one set of potentially explosive bolts from the shuttle have been found.

• Weather remained a factor on day eight of the search. Near-freezing temperatures and precipitation were expected to clear up Monday. Kerss said many searchers don't want to rest and have to be ordered off the search areas.

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