Feb. 2, 2003 -- One day after the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the sky, a NASA official said remains from all seven astronauts had been found while another official voiced hope that hidden data on computers would shed light on what caused the disaster.
"We found remains from all the astronauts," Bob Cabana, NASA director of flight crew operations, told reporters tonight. "It's still in the process of identification."
And as authorities continue the grim task of identifying the remains, NASA officials said they hoped they could find clues to determine what destroyed the second space shuttle in 17 years.
Ron Dittemore, the space shuttle program manager, said investigators will look for new clues that might be pulled out of NASA's flight computers — perhaps including data for an additional 32 seconds after communications with the shuttle went silent before the craft broke up.
Even if NASA officials succeed in retrieving the information, determining the cause of Saturday's disaster will not be easy. Officials say some evidence may have been destroyed during re-entry, when the shuttle was exposed to temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told ABCNEWS' This Week the preliminary investigation is concentrating on the external components of the shuttle, but nothing is being ruled out.
Looking at Fuel Tank, Tiles
NASA officials may focus on a piece of insulation that fell off a fuel tank during liftoff, perhaps hitting heat-repellent tiles under the left wing.
"That's one of the earliest indications," O'Keefe said. "It's one of the areas we're looking at first, early, to make sure the investigative team is concentrating on that theory or that set of facts."
Dittemore later told reporters NASA detected a sudden temperature rise in the shuttle's fuselage in the minutes before contact was lost. Soon afterward, Columbia's computer controls appeared to be trying to compensate for a drag on the left wing. However, he said, the drag by itself was not sufficient to suggest a problem with the insulating tiles, or at the time to have unduly alarmed the astronauts or NASA's ground crew.
"It's an interesting piece of data that's part of our equation that we're putting in with everything else," Dittemore said.
NASA preflight press information said the shuttle was using a new version of the fuel tank, The Associated Press reported. But a spokesman for Lockheed, the fuel tank manufacturer, said today Columbia actually was using an older version that NASA had begun phasing out in 2000, although he didn't know if there was a difference in the way the insulation was installed.
However, Dittemore said: "There's no concern about the lightweight tank. It's just different material than the super-lightweight. … Structurally and performance-wise, we had used it for many years, and had no reason to doubt its capability."
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Harold Gehman Jr. — who led the Pentagon investigation into the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole — will head a special government commission investigating the cause of the Columbia disaster. Officials continue to say there is no evidence of terrorism in the case of the shuttle.
NASA is also conducting its own investigation and House and Senate panels plan to examine the disaster that killed all seven crew members — commander Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, William McCool and Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut.
As the investigations proceed, NASA has suspended all space flights, though the Russians today launched a cargo rocket, as scheduled, to resupply the crew of the International Space Station.
Sheriff: Recovery May Take Weeks, Months
A massive recovery effort is under way in east Texas and Louisiana, where most of the remains of Columbia and its crew landed. Hundreds of people in Texas, using handheld global positioning satellites to pinpoint locations, are searching for debris and marking off sites.
"We have received reports of debris that ranges anywhere from pebble size up to seven- or eight-foot sections of fuselage or panel," said Thomas Kerss, sheriff of Nacogdoches County, Texas. "There are components of circuitry boards, computer components as well as just mass debris that doesn't resemble a whole lot of anything."
Some human body parts were also found.
"We don't want to find it, but because these folks gave their lives, we really want to recover things as soon as possible," said Sheriff Philip Waller of Polk County, Texas.
He said the entire recovery effort "is going to take several weeks, maybe into months."
When searchers find shuttle debris, Waller said, "We flag it out, we get a GPS location on it, we leave it, and then of course there will be a team to go by and pick it up and package it for evidence."
Eventually, authorized federal officials will remove the debris to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
Based upon eyewitness accounts, it is believed one of the largest chunks from Columbia may have fallen into the Toledo Bend Reservoir along the border between Louisiana and Texas. Crews were searching the lake.
Don’t Touch the Debris
Authorities have urged the public not to disturb the debris but instead report any finds to local authorities. Some of the pieces from the shuttle could be radioactive or toxic, they warned. And investigators want all the remnants for their probe.
But ABCNEWS space consultant Jim Slade, appearing on This Week, said it is likely little physical evidence remains because of the extreme heat of re-entry.
"There's a good chance that most of the evidence on the space craft has been destroyed," Slade said. "The real hope for some clue is in the data tapes at the mission control center, which in essence is the same thing as the black boxes on an airliner after one of these events."
In Texas, Nacogdoches County officials said civilian reports of debris were coming in at a rate of about 25 per hour, too fast for search teams to keep up.
In Sabine County, a municipal emergency coordinator, Billy Ted Smith, said some people exposed to debris were sent to hospitals for treatment of "burns and respiratory distress." Judge Sue Kennedy, emergency director for Nacogdoches County, said several people there had been sent to hospitals as a precaution, but there were no reports of injuries.
Kennedy warned that anyone caught removing debris could face federal prosecution.
Several purported pieces of debris were listed on the online auction site eBay in the hours after the disaster, but the site later pulled them down.
The NASA phone number for people to report any debris discoveries is (281) 483-3388.
Seeds of Doom?
The Columbia disaster may have been set in motion when the shuttle took off on Jan. 16.
Sixty seconds after liftoff, a piece of foam insulation came off the orange external fuel tank, and smacked into the orbiter's left wing.
NASA engineers immediately worried whether that damaged any of the critical heat tiles that protect the shuttle on re-entry. Once the shuttle was in orbit, they conducted an extensive engineering analysis.
"We convinced ourselves as we analyzed it 10 days ago that it was not going to represent a safety issue," Dittemore said.
Even if there had been damage, there would have no way for the astronauts to check it out or to repair the thermal tiles. There was no robotic arm on board to take a look, and the astronauts cannot stray past the cargo bay doors.
"There is no capability to inspect it," Dittemore said. "We are not able to look on the underside of the vehicles."
And so the mission continued. The seven-member crew conducted 80 experiments.
The unfolding disaster was visible in the skies over Texas and on images captured by a weather satellite. A red streak on the satellite image appeared to be the shuttle coming apart. Debris began to fall, 40 miles to the ground.
The shuttle may have actually started breaking up farther west, as it passed over California. Two photographers there were taking pictures of the re-entry through a telescope. They saw what appeared to be a giant flare.
"As it was crossing, I sort of noticed the big piece falling off," said Gene Blevins, a free-lance photographer for the Los Angeles Daily News, "sort of like some little specks, red flares or something like that — really small ones, though, like when you see a meteor coming in the atmosphere and it starts breaking up."
‘Like Flames Licking the Shuttle’
In the years since the 1986 Challenger explosion, Americans have tended to take space travel somewhat for granted. But former Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, told This Week spaceflight is extremely dangerous.
"You're dealing with speeds and complexities and the most complex machine ever put together ever," Glenn said. "And you're dealing with the high heat of re-entry and things like that, that we haven't dealt with before. And you're starting re-entry at almost five miles a second."
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, said even a normal shuttle re-entry can be rough.
"When you look out the windows all you see is orange and pink glows seemingly surrounding the shuttle," Ride told This Week. "[It] almost looks like flames licking the shuttle. I was glad somebody had told me about that before my first flight."
She said news of the Columbia accident left her reeling.
"It was just a horrible day," Ride said. "I knew pretty much from the moment they had lost contact and then didn't regain it that it was going to be a very bad day — a bad day for the space program, a bad day for the nation."
ABCNEWS' Lisa Stark in Houston, Erin Hayes in Shreveport, La., Michael S. James, and Aaron Katersky of ABCNEWS affiliate KTRH Radio in Houston contributed to this report.