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Tape might hold key data on shuttle
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Salvaged tape from Columbia's data recorder might hold vital information up until just a few seconds before the shuttle disintegrated over Texas, accident investigators said yesterday.
While the 9,400 feet of magnetic tape was being duplicated at Kennedy Space Center this week, a time tag on it confirmed that some type of imprint exists until 18 seconds past 9 a.m. on Feb. 1, the board said. After that, the tape is blank.
Columbia was losing a steady stream of parts as it crossed over California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas en route to a Florida landing, almost certainly because of a breached left wing. NASA's latest flight timeline shows the main body of the shuttle breaking apart as early as 21 seconds past 9 a.m.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board is optimistic, given that the recorder evidently was collecting data almost to the very end, but spokeswoman Laura Brown said: "We're still cautious about predicting what's going to be on it."
Temperature and aerodynamic measurements, if they're there, would provide 14 extra seconds of flight data for investigators.
The 58-pound recorder was found March 19, right side up and intact, on a damp slope in East Texas. Until now, officials had feared possible heat damage to the tape because the recorder was not built to withstand high impacts or temperatures, Brown said. The recorder is similar to an airliner's black box, but not nearly as robust or self-sustaining.
A copy of the tape was to be shipped today to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for analysis, a time-consuming process expected to continue throughout next week and possibly longer, NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said.
Hartsfield said the tape appears to be "very promising." But he cautioned that the data could be corrupt and that the most critical information - temperature, pressure, vibration and other measurements from Columbia's left wing - might not be available if wires from those sensors were burned in the final minutes of flight.
Investigators have said that if temperature sensors near the wing's leading edge - the hottest area - remained online and if that information is on the tape, they could better determine the flow of the penetrating plume of deadly hot gas.
The investigation board speculates that Columbia's left wing might have been breached by insulating foam or other material that fell off the external fuel tank during liftoff Jan. 16. One theory is that the heat-protective carbon panels on the leading edge of the wing, which were struck, might have been weakened already from wear and tear or corroding bolts.
The data recorder was collecting measurements from 721 sensors on Columbia's wings, fuselage and tail during both launch and re-entry. The board disclosed Wednesday that defects might exist in the foam used to insulate the external fuel tanks. When investigators recently cut into the foam of another tank, at a Lockheed Martin Corp. plant in Michaud, Miss., they discovered three air pockets near a critical attachment point, called a bipod ramp.
Investigators have suspected that foam fell off near or at the attachment point during the Columbia liftoff. Photographic analysis made public this week also confirms that the foam did come off at the bipod ramp. The voids in the foam could explain why it became detached.
A number of tests in the coming weeks should confirm whether the foam/leading edge explanation is credible.