Shuttle debris and data under scrutiny

CREWS combed suburban gardens and remote Texas woodlands for the remains of space shuttle Columbia yesterday as experts focused on a heat surge on the left side of the doomed spacecraft in the early investigation of why it disintegrated.

For a third day, hundreds of police and soldiers fanned out across east Texas and Louisiana in a search for debris and the remains of the seven astronauts who perished on Saturday when NASA’s oldest shuttle broke apart high over Texas.

Body parts, fragments and pieces of the shuttle were strewn across an area more than 100 miles long and 10 miles wide, much of it in the thick Texas forests known as the Piney Woods.

Meanwhile, families of the Columbia astronauts yesterday called for space exploration to continue.

Evelyn Husband, wife of shuttle commander Rick Husband, said the relatives of the seven victims wanted their loved ones’ legacy to be more manned NASA missions.

“Although we grieve deeply, as do the families of Apollo 1 and Challenger before us, the bold exploration of space must go on,” she said in a statement.

“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.”

NASA scientists pored over reams of data for clues, focusing initially on a sharp heat spike along Columbia’s left side and an unusually sharp corrective manoeuvre recorded just before the vehicle disintegrated.

An independent inquiry board appointed by NASA also was to meet for the first time yesterday, led by retired Navy Admiral Harold Gehman, who co-chaired an independent commission that investigated the attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen. That review will run parallel to NASA’s internal review.

The New York Times reported that NASA had removed five of the nine members of a safety panel after it warned the shuttle would face safety problems if the agency’s budget was not raised.

Some of the experts said their removal was an effort to suppress their criticism. Retired Admiral Bernard Kauderer, was so upset at the firings that he quit NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, a group of experts charged with monitoring safety at the space agency, the newspaper said.

NASA conceded the individuals were forced out, but told the Times it changed the charter of the group so that new members who were younger and more skilled could be added.

“It had nothing to do with shooting the messenger,” a NASA spokeswoman told the newspaper.

Bill Readdy, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight, a former shuttle commander, said NASA was keenly aware of the need for safety upgrades.

“This is far from something being ignored, it is a constant part of what we do. We have made tremendous upgrades to the shuttle over the past 10 years.

"Even though it looks the same on the launch pad, from the tip of the external tank to the hold-down posts of the solid rocket boosters, the entire vehicle has been continually upgraded,” he said.

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