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Investigators Believe They Know Cause of Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster - 2003-05-07

Investigators looking into the cause of the space shuttle Columbia disaster say they now think they know why the shuttle broke up on re-entry last February – killing all 7 members of the crew. Dave Deforest has details.

Investigators looking into the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster say they believe damage to the orbiter’s left wing led to its destruction as it headed back to Earth on February 1st.

Harold Gehman, chairman of the Independent Investigative Board, said Tuesday the damage allowed superheated air to get inside the wing as Columbia re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, setting off a chain of events that ended with the disaster.

Until now, investigators had theorized that a piece of insulating foam broke loose from the shuttle’s external tank during lift-off and struck the wing. However, Mr. Gehman cautioned more tests are needed to confirm what he called a “working hypothesis”:

“We are careful not to say that the foam knocked a hole in the edge of the orbiter because we can’t prove it.”

Investigators are also studying NASA’s inspection and maintenance schedule for the shuttle fleet. Brigadier General Duane Deal is a member of the board.

“Some things that work great for an airline industry that has thousands of flights per week may not be right for a research and development manned space flight system with 113 flights under its belt.”

On Tuesday, the last major shipment of shuttle debris arrived at the Kennedy Space Center for further analysis and examination. The investigative team said it will make recommendations for safer shuttle flights. But the panel cautions shuttles will never be absolutely risk-free.