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Shuttle <i>Columbia</i> Data Recorder Recovered - 2003-03-20

Search teams have recovered a key piece of hardware from the doomed U.S. space shuttle Columbia. It is a data recorder, a discovery that is providing new hope for finding the reason the shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry last month.

A data recorder survived the fiery break up of the shuttle and landed on a slope near Hemphill, Texas. A team combing the area for shuttle debris came across it, dry and partially buried in the ground.

A spokesman for the independent board of experts probing the disaster, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Woody Woodyard, says investigators are happy the box did not land in the water. "It survived, amazingly, that re-entry," he said. "We're very, very happy with the condition of it. It's intact and we're very hopeful. This is a promising find because we all know that it can contain some information that can really help us begin to solve this detective story."

The shuttle data box has been sent for cleaning and analysis to the U.S. space agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the home of the shuttle program.

Shuttle recorders such as this one operate only during launch and re-entry and store information on magnetic tape about temperature, aerodynamic pressure, vibrations, and other information from dozens of sensors throughout the orbiter. They do not relay the information to ground controllers during flight.

Investigators are hopeful the Columbia recorder will give them a new lead into why gases, superheated by the friction of the shuttle's re-entry, penetrated the orbiter. They believe the hot gases entered through a breach in the left wing and exiting from the left landing wheel well. The focus of the probe is what caused that opening, which is thought to have been in either a thermal tile or the protective reinforced carbon compound on the wing's front edge.

Investigators have learned just how hot Columbia got during its disintegration. Board member James Hallock says a piece of disfigured metal debris from the left landing gear shows that temperatures were extreme. "How much heat? Well, there's a corner missing," said James Hallock. "It has been melted off. This is titanium. It melts at approximately 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit [1,600 degrees Celsius]. That's a large temperature."

Board spokesman Woody Woodyard says it is fortunate that the heat somehow bypassed the data recorder. "There are some items that can survive re-entry because they are covered in large systems that are around it," he said. "So as the heat might disintegrate pieces around it, by the time it got to this particular box, it clearly had already passed the hottest temperatures."

Colonel Woodyard says investigators hope to have information from the data recorder by the end of next week at the earliest.