Aided by federal and local agencies, NASA stepped up its inquiry into the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts. Multiple investigative teams continue to pore over engineering data in an effort to uncover the cause of the breakup of the orbiter over Texas on Saturday 16 minutes from landing.
Space Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore told an afternoon briefing that a Mishap Response Team is gathering data from numerous engineering teams in the early stages of the investigation and is receiving assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement agencies, among others.
Dittemore said that as Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William McCool, Mission Specialists Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson, Laurel Clark and Israeli Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon are mourned, the recovery of debris from Columbia and human remains is being coordinated at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
Dittemore thanked residents in the areas where debris fell after Columbia’s breakup for cooperating in the recovery effort but cautioned them not to handle debris that could contain toxic substances.
Dittemore reconstructed the final minutes of Columbia’s flight before communications was lost. He reiterated the failure of four temperature sensors associated with the shuttle’s left hand elevons at 7:53 a.m. CST Saturday amidst a 20-30 degree rise in left hand bondline and strut temperatures over a five-minute period near the left wheel well of the orbiter. Columbia was flying over California at the time at an altitude of about 220,000 feet traveling 21 times the speed of sound.
One minute later, over the region of eastern California and western Nevada, Columbia’s mid-fuselage bondline temperatures above the left wing experienced an unusual temperature increase. It rose 60 degrees over a five-minute period. No such temperature increase was noted on the right side of Columbia or in the Shuttle’s cargo bay. Columbia was about 212,000 feet above the Earth, flying at Mach 20.
At 7:58 a.m. over New Mexico, telemetry showed a larger than normal drag on the left side of the shuttle, and an indication of an increase in pressure in the left main landing gear tires. Dittemore said the data suggests the tires remained intact. Columbia’s altitude was 209,000 feet.
At 7:59 a.m. over west Texas, the data showed Columbia continuing to react to an increased drag on its left side, trying to correct the movement by rolling back to the right. Dittemore said the response of the orbiter was well within its capability to handle such maneuvers.
At that time, seconds before 8 a.m. CST, all communications was lost with Columbia as it flew at an altitude of 207,000 feet, 18 times the speed of sound.
Dittemore indicated that ground computers may contain an additional 32 seconds of data which could provide additional information in the analysis of Columbia’s breakup.
He added that the loss of some foam insulation from Columbia’s external fuel tank, which struck the shuttle’s left wing about 80 seconds after launch was “inconsequential” based on video imagery review conducted by engineering specialists. However, he said nothing has been ruled out as a possible cause for the accident.
Robert Cabana, the Director of Flight Crew Operations at the Johnson Space Center, relayed thanks from the families of the astronauts for the outpouring of support received from around the nation and the world.
Cabana said that the Expedition 6 crewmembers aboard the International Space Station are “grieving” for the loss of Columbia’s crew, but are in good spirits as they continue human spaceflight and scientific research aboard the orbital outpost. Cabana said Commander Ken Bowersox, Flight Engineer Nikolai Budarin and NASA ISS Science Officer Don Pettit are preparing for Tuesday’s arrival of a Russian Progress cargo ship. Progress 10 was launched this morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
On Tuesday, Feb. 4, President and Mrs. Bush will join NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe at the Johnson Space Center to pay tribute to Columbia’s astronauts during a special memorial service. The ceremony to honor Columbia’s seven crewmembers is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. EST and will be broadcast on NASA Television. The service is not open to the public.
The next STS-107 Accident Response briefings are on Monday, Feb. 3 at NASA Headquarters in Washington at 11:30 a.m. EST and at the Johnson Space Center at 4:30 p.m. EST. Status reports will be issued as developments warrant.
NASA TV can be found on AMC-2, Transponder 9C, vertical polarization at 85 degrees West longitude, 3880 MHz, with audio at 6.8 MHz.
- end -