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Data recorder found intact may provide shuttle clues

Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC with previous permission of the Houston


Data recorder found intact may provide shuttle clues

A data recorder has been found, apparently intact, from the shattered
Columbia and its magnetic tape may hold clues to the spaceship's
destruction in the skies over Texas. 

"It's very, very promising, but we just won't know how useful it's going
to be until they're able to retrieve the data," Laura Brown, a
spokeswoman for the accident investigation board, said Wednesday night. 

The recorder, found by a search team earlier in the day near Hemphill in
East Texas, could hold valuable information about temperatures and
aerodynamic pressures on Columbia in its final minutes of flight, Brown
said. She likened it to an airplane's black box. 

"We have no way of knowing whether the data can be recovered," she said.
But she added that if it can, "it will give us, hopefully, a lot of
information about what was going on with the orbiter." 

In fact, it could be one of the most significant pieces of shuttle debris
found in the six weeks since the accident. 

The discovery was all the more thrilling for NASA and the investigation
board because it had been days since any major pieces of the shuttle had
been found. 

The recorder, which sustained some heat damage, was sent to Johnson Space
Center for analysis. 

Brown said these recorders -- called the orbiter experiment support
systems -- normally are turned on right before a space shuttle begins its
descent through the atmosphere and run for one or two hours. 

Columbia broke apart during its atmospheric re-entry on Feb. 1, just
minutes short of a planned Florida touchdown. 

The investigation board suspects the left wing of Columbia was breached,
possibly by launch debris 16 days earlier, and that searing atmospheric
gases penetrated the hole and carved a deadly path through the wing and
into the left landing gear compartment. All seven astronauts were killed.

About 30,000 pieces of Columbia have been found, representing nearly 20
percent of the descending shuttle. 

NASA's space shuttles have a variety of computers and data recorders, but
nothing directly comparable to the black boxes on airplanes that give
crash investigators detailed flight information. 

Brown said the recovered data recorder is of a type used for the initial
shuttle flights back in the early 1980s, to collect information from
sensors. It was modified over the years, she said. 

Earlier Wednesday, well before the recorder was found and identified,
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said investigators may never find a
single definitive cause for the catastrophe. 

"We're six weeks into this and there's not going to be an `ah-hah'," he
told the NASA Advisory Council at Stennis Space Flight Center in

O'Keefe said contributing factors could include hardware failure, the
breakdown of processes and procedures during the flight and bad judgment
calls. He did not elaborate on those factors, but noted: "I bet it's
going to be a combination of all three." 

O'Keefe said he does, however, expect answers that will enable NASA to
resume shuttle flights. 

"My personal sense is that the problem is definable and the problem is
fixable," he said. 

In New Orleans, meanwhile, NASA's deputy associate administrator for
spaceflight, Michael Kostelnik, led a meeting to discuss how to keep the
space shuttles operating through 2015. The two-day session was billed as
the beginning of the space agency's process of determining how to extend
the life span of the three remaining shuttles. 

The shuttles, which were built to fly no more than 100 missions, could be
needed far longer than expected, Kostelnik said. Columbia, the oldest in
the fleet, was making its 28th flight.

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