Focus Now on Wing

February 3, 2003
Posted at: 10:15 a.m. CST

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA engineers settled into their long, joyless task of figuring out how space shuttle Columbia broke apart, saying conditions in the shuttle's final minutes point to a possible problem with its critical heat-protection tiles.

NASA says new evidence shows that the temperature on Columbia's left side shot up and the ship was buffeted by greater wind resistance before it disintegrated over Texas, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Those conditions forced its automatic pilot to quickly change course.

The combination of these events suggests that thermal tiles may have been damaged during launch by a loose piece of foam insulation from the shuttle's external fuel tank. The shuttle's exterior is covered with thousands of tiles designed to protect it from the extreme heat of re-entry.

Despite the possible clues, shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore stressed Sunday that the information was only preliminary.

"We've got some more detective work," Dittemore said. "But we're making progress inch by inch."

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe also stressed that other theories couldn't be ruled out yet.

The foam "is one item of many, many pieces of evidence we're collecting in an effort to try to determine the cause of this accident," O'Keefe said Monday on CBS' "The Early Show." "We're not ruling anything out and that is not a favored theory at this point."

The families of Columbia's crew members said Monday they want their loved ones' legacy to continue.

"Although we grieve deeply, as do the families of Apollo I and Challenger before us, the bold exploration of space must go on. Once the root cause of this tragedy is found and corrected, the legacy of Columbia must carry on for the benefit of our children and yours," they said in a statement read by Evelyn Husband, wife of shuttle Cmdr. Rick Husband, on NBC's "Today."

While engineers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston analyzed billions of bits of electronic data radioed to Earth by Columbia on Saturday morning, state and federal officials collected bits and pieces of the shattered spacecraft over a broad swath of east Texas and Louisiana.

The debris was being catalogued and trucked to an Air Force base in Louisiana. Some human remains also have been recovered.

President Bush scheduled a meeting Monday with O'Keefe to get an update on the disaster.

Computer data indicates that moments before Columbia broke apart on Saturday on its way toward a landing in Florida, temperatures rose in the wheel well and on the fuselage on the left side of the shuttle. That was the same side of the craft that was hit by the fuel-tank insulation during the craft's Jan. 16 launch, NASA engineers said.

Dittemore said engineers also planned to examine 32 seconds of computer data that earlier had been ignored because it was considered flawed. The data came just before all communications with Columbia were lost.

NASA engineers spotted the peeling insulation on high speed cameras that recorded Columbia's launch. Dittemore said the possible effects on the tiles from the insulation were studied aggressively while the shuttle was still aloft, but engineers concluded "it did not represent a safety concern."

"As we gather more evidence, certainly the evidence may take us in another direction," he said.