Investigators looking into the cause of the space shuttle ?Columbia? accident say they are almost certain a gap on the left wing of the shuttle brought down the orbiter. The shuttle broke apart over Texas last February 1st killing its seven crew members. Auria Aguilar-Makki reports.

Investigators say evidence shows the insulating foam that ripped during the shuttle?s launch last January hit a seal on the left wing. That would have created a gap large enough to let in hot gases as the spacecraft entered the atmosphere on its return flight last February.

After 11 weeks of examining debris and analyzing data, investigators say tests show an object that floated away from the shuttle while in orbit was likely a so called ?T-seal?. These seals are made of reinforced carbon composite and fit between panels made of the same material that are designed to resist almost two thousand degree Celsius during re-entry.

Investigators also found that tests on a fuel tank similar to the one that propelled Columbia, showed at least 74 defects in the insulating foam, many of which are air pockets.


Members of the investigating board also found that seven of the 77 flight controllers involved in Columbia were lacking some of the necessary certifications. But, they emphasized this did not contribute to the accident. The board will be issuing a final report on the investigation some time in the months ahead. It issued preliminary recommendations last week.

Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, the next crew of the International Space Station, is getting ready to take its place in space. U.S. astronaut Edward Lu and Russian cosmonaut and commander of the mission, Yuri Malenchenko, are ready to launch Friday on a mission that will last 185 days. The U.S. shuttle fleet has been grounded since the Columbia accident so a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will take them to space. The departing crew will return to Earth aboard another Soyuz spacecraft May 4th after more than five months in space.