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Space Shuttle Columbia

Debris suggests shuttle tires blew out

A left main landing gear tire from the space shuttle Columbia
A left main landing gear tire from the space shuttle Columbia

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(CNN) -- Tires and debris recovered from the space shuttle Columbia suggest that the left tires blew out and superheated gases were flowing out of the left wing's wheel well, investigators said Tuesday.

The independent board looking into what brought down the doomed orbiter cautioned that the new evidence, while tantalizing, leaves many questions unanswered.

"We believe that it's possible that the tires on the left side blew out," said Roger Tetrault, a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

"The blowout of the tires would have been a very catastrophic event."

The threads from the two left tires were "basically pulled apart," he told reporters in Houston.

In contrast, the tires from the right wing look more like those from a more normal airplane accident, Tetrault said.

Whether the blowout took place before or after the orbiter began disintegrating remains unknown. Until contact was lost with the shuttle, the data transmissions indicated the tire pressure was normal, said board chairman, retired Navy Admin. Harold Gehman.

On February 1, the shuttle developed a series of problems on its left wing while re-entering the atmosphere. It broke up over Texas minutes later, killing all seven astronauts onboard.

Besides all six tires from the shuttle, recovery teams have found other components that shed more light on the catastrophe, thought to have been sparked by a breach in the left wing, which allowed superheated gas to pierce the structure.

A right main landing gear tire from the shuttle
A right main landing gear tire from the shuttle

Heat resistant tiles are riddled with scorch marks, gouges and melting scars. Right side debris exhibits thin, black deposits with molten aluminum, which may have dribbled from the interior shuttle frame.

Moreover, recovered debris and shuttle data indicate that "very hot air was blowing out of the (left) wheel well," Tetrault said.

Gehman said the board is working hard to figure out what all the jumbled information means. Investigators are studying where and how heated gas could have traveled through the wing.

"We're trying to find a scenario that meets the temperature readings," he said.

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