NASA continues to search for answers in Columbia disaster

As family and friends gathered Tuesday to pay their final respects to the seven astronauts killed in Saturday’s space-shuttle tragedy, authorities continue to speculate about a cause.

NASA officials, along with members of government, aerospace engineers and educators have developed differentiating theories about the events leading up to the accident.

NASA originally placed the greatest significance on possible thermal deficiencies, despite concern of the piece of foam insulation that reportedly broke off the external tank during takeoff and possibly damaged the left wing. NASA officials said calculated analysis gave them no reason to believe the foam’s structural damage to the wing would be enough to cause Saturday’s tragedy. According to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article, officials initially dismissed the insulation incident. Now, however, NASA vows to assess every possibility.

NASA is “completely redoing (its) analysis from scratch,” said Kylie Mortiz, a spokesperson for the Johnson Space Center in an interview with Media General News Services.

Paul Czysz, a former professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at St. Louis University and former chief scientist for McDonnell Douglas’ aerospace program, said he believes the 2-and-one-half-pound piece of foam was probably water-soaked and frozen, weighed around 70 pounds and was traveling at approximately 100 mph when it struck the wing.

“Can you imagine if I threw a 70-pound block of ice at you at 100 mph?” Czysz asked in a Media General News Service article. “Do you think you’d duck?”

More revealing, were statements made Tuesday by Virginia Sen. George Allen. According to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article, Sen. Allen described a phone conversation he had with victim David Brown’s brother, Doug. As reported by the Times-Dispatch, Sen. Allen stated that Doug Brown told him David e-mailed him while on his mission expressing his and the crew’s concern about the shuttle’s left wing.

Allen said in their conversation, Doug Brown said his brother told him the crew photographed the damaged left wing, but no photos were e-mailed to him.

Doug Brown has made no official public statement as of Wednesday afternoon and has been unavailable for comment.

A spokeswoman at Johnson Space Center, Nicole Cloutier, discredited Brown’s account stating that Columbia was not equipped with a robotic arm that might have allowed astronauts to view the wing area.

The astronauts also would not be able to view the wing from windows in the crew compartments or the payload area, according to early statements from the Johnson Space Center.

Later, NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said NASA believed the crew would have only been able to see the tip of the wing, not the leading edge.

“Nor could they see the bottom of where the strike appears to have taken place,” Jacobs said.

NASA deputy administrator, Michael Kostelnik, told The Associated Press, he had not received any indication the Columbia crew was concerned about the wing damage.

“The sense throughout the NASA community was that this was not a safety issue, and I think the crew accepted that,” Kostelnik said.

As an investigation prompted by Sen. Allen’s statements moves forward, the search for missing shuttle pieces and crewmembers intensifies.

Although Tuesday and Wednesday presented encouraging finds, theft has placed an additional burden on those assisting in the investigation and recovery.

Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department were asked to assist authorities in Texas as well as two canine search teams from Virginia Task Force 1. Some members of the team assisted in search operations at the Pentagon after Sept. 11.

By Tuesday, workers had recovered the shuttle’s nose cone, buried deep within the ground in a wooded area near Hemphill, Texas. Local law enforcement officials also reported that more than 100 pieces of the shuttle have been stolen. One of the pieces, according to Reuters News Service, may be the Columbia’s computer circuitry.

“This is federal property,” Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss told Reuters.

Officials and investigators said they are focused on locating and safeguarding as much debris as possible.

Reuters reported Tuesday that most of the debris deemed by NASA to be essential is under close watch.

– Olivia Lloyd contributed to this story.

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