Columbia accident investigators located a key data recorder in a debris field Wednesday. Officials hope they will find information about the space shuttle's final two hours of flight before the orbiter was destroyed.
The device was found by a crew near Hemphill, Texas, during an effort to search nearly 500 square miles of the state.
"This is the one we really wanted to get our hands on," said Laura Brown, spokeswoman for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. "It has data from a dozen sensors that record temperature, aerodynamic pressure and other sensor inputs."
The recorder was recovered fully intact, but investigators do not know whether it was damaged by heat as it dropped through the atmosphere after Columbia broke apart Feb. 1, killing the seven astronauts aboard.
Columbia was the only one of the four shuttles outfitted with the recorder, said James Hartsfield, a spokesman at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
It was installed because Columbia was the first shuttle and engineers wanted as much data as possible about early flights. It was connected to a wide variety of instruments throughout the craft, he said; many of those instruments have been removed since Columbia first flew in 1981.
Unlike commercial aircraft, space shuttles continuously transmit flight data to the ground, where they are recorded for future analysis.
The data contained on the recorder would be supplemental data that were never transmitted. It would not contain any conversations that occurred in the cockpit; unlike commercial aircraft, those conversations are not recorded during shuttle flights.
Hartsfield said the Columbia also carried flight-control computers and mass-memory units that record data but that no information from any of those devices has been recovered.
"We have not found any that have had any data that could be salvaged," he said. "Finding this is exciting, tempered by the fact that we don't know what it will tell us and what condition the data [are] in."
Brown said the recorder was transported to Johnson Space Center, where a NASA team would soon begin assessing its condition. The device, known as an orbiter experiments support systems recorder, begins operating just before the shuttle reenters Earth's atmosphere and can hold up to two hours of data, she said.
If the tape is not damaged, it could provide investigators with invaluable information about the aerodynamic pressures and heating irregularities that are at the heart of the probe.
The investigating board is preparing to issue, as early as today, its first formal recommendation involving NASA's internal communication process.
In its public hearings, the board has delved into whether senior NASA officials were fully informed during Columbia's final flight about technical concerns expressed by lower-level engineers and whether the agency's organization supports open communication.
Beyond examining the narrow technical causes of the accident, the board is assessing broad NASA management issues, as well as how the agency addresses flight safety.