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Searchers Recover Part of Shuttle's Left Wing - 2003-02-11


The U.S. space agency NASA says a search team has recovered part of the left wing of the doomed space shuttle Columbia. This part may be important in determining what caused the orbiter to disintegrate on its return to Earth on February 1.

NASA says debris found in Texas last week is part of the shuttle's apparently troubled left wing.

NASA official Michael Kostelnik says it is part of the wing's leading edge, identifiable by its covering of dense carbon tiles that protect against the searing heat of atmospheric re-entry.

"I think they have identified that they have at least one piece of the left wing. I don't know exactly which section that is along the wing. There was uncertainty among the people who recovered it as to, for sure, which piece it was," he said.

The shuttle's left wing is of interest in the accident investigation because sensors throughout it showed that the orbiter's left side heated to unusually high temperatures during re-entry minutes before it broke apart.

The wing fragment is one of 12,000 pieces of the shuttle that fell to the ground in east Texas and neighboring western Louisiana after it disintegrated. Mr. Kostelnik does not know what percentage of the entire shuttle that represents, but says the harder work is finding the remaining pieces scattered in lakes and wooded areas.

"We have dive teams and a lot of people working the underwater part. That will take more time to recover those. And also in this same area there is a lot of dense forests in and around these lakes and we know that there is a lot of material that went into these regions as well, and as you might suspect, it is much more difficult to locate those pieces," he said.

Trucks have begun hauling the debris from a Louisiana collection center to the shuttle launch site at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, where it is to be reassembled and analyzed for clues to the disaster.

NASA engineers and technicians will continue to work with the debris, but the job of finding out what went wrong with Columbia has been taken over by an independent investigation board. It is made up of experts with experience in aviation and other types of disasters and is led by retired U.S. Navy admiral Harold Gehman, who supervised the probe of the terrorist attack on a U.S. destroyer in Yemen in October 2000.

But because the board was formed by NASA, some members of Congress raised questions about its independence. NASA rewrote the board's charter to spell out the panel is not accountable to the space agency, but one member of the House committee that oversees NASA, Bart Gordon, has complained that the changes do not go far enough.

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe disagrees and says Admiral Gehman is ready to expand his panel to include more outside experts. "There are lots of other ways of doing it, but that's the one we chose and it and it certainly is moving in a direction that I think is going to give us a fighting chance of coming up with a judgment that is unbiased and uncluttered by whatever view we might otherwise put to it within the NASA community based on the viewpoints that we feel are very important," he said.

Congress begins its own investigation into the Columbia disaster Wednesday when the U.S. Senate and House NASA oversight committees hold a rare joint meeting to question Mr. O'Keefe.