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NASA Investigation Focuses On Heat Build-Up, Insulation

By Eric Malnic and Matt Lait
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- HOUSTON

A day after losing space shuttle Columbia and its crew, NASA appointed a panel Sunday to investigate the tragedy, and said a more detailed analysis of the mission’s final minutes had focused on a sharp buildup of heat on the left side of the craft shortly before it disintegrated.

In a highly technical, 90-minute televised briefing, Ron Dittemore, the shuttle’s program manager, said technicians with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had more closely examined the seven minutes before Columbia lost contact with Houston’s Mission Control Saturday morning.

As the spacecraft passed over eastern California toward its planned landing in Florida, temperatures began to soar, rising 20 to 30 degrees in the left wing wheel well and, a minute later, rising 60 degrees on the left side of the fuselage, above the wing.

“We are gaining confidence that it was a thermal problem,” Dittemore said. But, he added, ‘it is too early for me to speculate on what all that means. ... I don’t have any smoking gun.”

Four minutes later the craft, which was flying on autopilot, began to pull to the left, computerized controls compensating for increased drag, or wind resistance, on that side of the shuttle. The drag could have been caused by problems with one of the tiles that provide insulation from the 3,000-degree heat, he said.

“Does that mean something to us? We’re not sure,” Dittemore said. “It could be indicative of rough tile; it could be indicative of scratched or missing tile.”

NASA investigators have ruled out several other potential causes, including an on-board fire, major structural failure and terrorism.

Meanwhile, NASA said remains of several of the seven astronauts had been recovered and identified from the massive swath of debris left in Texas and Louisiana by Columbia’s breakup, which began more than 200,000 feet above the earth at a speed of 12,000 mph. No one on the ground was injured, though health experts continued to warn that toxic material on the debris could be dangerous.

A memorial service for the seven victims -- David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon -- is scheduled Tuesday at the Johnson Space Center here. President Bush will attend the event.

In Washington, a senior administration official said Bush, in a spending plan being sent to Congress Monday, plans to seek a $469-million increase in NASA’s current $15 billion budget. And Sean O’Keefe, NASA administrator, appeared on several television programs to defend the agency’s work, insisting that the agency had not cut corners on safety and pledged an aggressive investigation into what went wrong. The independent investigative panel named Sunday will be headed by retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. Officially known as the Space Shuttle Mishap Interagency Investigation Board, it will meet for the first time Monday morning at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, La.

James N. Hallock ’63, the Aviation Safety Division Chief of the U.S. Department of Transportation, was also named to the panel. Hallock earned an SB, SM, and PhD in physics from MIT.