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NASA Focuses on Liftoff Incident in Shuttle Probe - 2003-02-03

U.S. space agency officials are looking into whether possible damage to the space shuttle Columbia's heat resistant tiles during liftoff may have been a factor in causing the spacecraft to breakup over Texas Saturday, killing all seven astronauts on board. NASA knows something caused unexpected drag on shuttle Columbia just as it was re-entering Earth's atmosphere. The area near the left wing heated up dramatically, and the spacecraft began to lean to the left as well.

What is also known is that a piece of hardened foam insulation struck Columbia's left wing just seconds after liftoff January 16. It was judged to be insignificant at the time. But whether it later set off a chain of events that could have caused the shuttle to break up under the pressure of re-entering earth's atmosphere has emerged as an early lead in the investigation.

"That is one of the things that we're looking at and everybody seems to have leaped to the conclusion that that was the cause," said NASA associate administrator Bill Readdy. He cautions the investigation is only 48 hours old and much more data still needs to be examined.

"It may certainly be the leading candidate right now," Mr. Readdy said. "We have to go through all the evidence and then rule things out very methodically in order to arrive at the cause."

Meanwhile, authorities across a large swatch of Texas and Louisiana continue the grim task of picking up bits of shuttle wreckage and human remains with NASA hoping to recover every last shred of evidence in a search for answers that could take months.

With NASA, along with an independent panel and Congress all set to look into the disaster, President Bush has told NASA's chief administrator he wants to be kept permanently updated on the status of the investigation. On Tuesday, the president will attend a memorial service in honor of the seven astronauts who died aboard Columbia at the Johnson Space Center near Houston.