A year after Columbia disintegrated over Texas, pieces of the doomed space shuttle keep turning up, NASA officials said Friday as they showed reporters the spacecraft's final resting place.
One or two pieces a week are found in the area of eastern Texas where most of the shuttle debris fell from the sky after Columbia disintegrated on re-entry last Feb. 1. The small pieces include parts of the reinforced carbon-carbon panels that lined the edge of the wing and the foam tiles that insulated the shuttle from searing heat.
Searchers last spring officially stopped looking for shuttle pieces, which were shipped off to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to help investigators figure out what went wrong. None of the new pieces have been found outside a half-million-acre field that stretched from Texas to Louisiana.
"We're never going to do any more with the debris that will help us solve the mystery, because we know what happened," said Mike Leinbach, shuttle launch director who oversaw the assembly of the debris in Florida. "Any debris we get back will do nothing but reinforce that."
An investigation determined that a piece of foam from the external tank struck the left wing of Columbia, causing a breach that allowed hot gases to get inside the wing during descent, leading to its failure and disintegration of the shuttle. The disaster killed all seven astronauts, who will be remembered Sunday on the anniversary of the accident at services in Cape Canaveral and Houston.
After an engineering evaluation, new pieces join the more than 84,000 shuttle debris pieces already being stored on the 16th floor of the 52-floor Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center.
The pieces form a library of the Columbia, with every part labeled with a bar code and available to researchers interested in studying the accident. There have been 16 requests for pieces from university and NASA researchers. Forty-five pieces have already been sent to other NASA centers, including parts of the reinforced carbon-carbon that will be used to help develop techniques to make repairs on the shuttle when it's in space.
"We know exactly where each piece of Columbia is," Leinbach said. "We could probably retrieve any piece of Columbia we wanted to in a couple of hours."
The pieces are stored in a 7,000-square-foot room with scuffed linoleum floors and fluorescent lighting that once was a NASA office. Most are in large cardboard boxes in the back of the room, behind a banner signed by NASA workers before the accident that says "We're Behind You, Columbia."
Pieces that came from the crew's cabin are stored in a closed-off section of the room. But hundreds of the largest pieces, and ones that helped investigators determine what happened to Columbia, are in the open.
Pieces of reinforced carbon-carbon from Columbia's left wing, stored behind Plexiglas display cases, stretch out 20 feet in the shape of the wing. The nose landing gear, its two wheels still attached, lies nearby. Shelves hold burned computers, including one that has pieces of dried grass sticking out of it. Square foam insulating tile are under a glass display. On a table is a black data recorder, about the size of a DVD player, which recorded pressure, vibrations and temperatures on the shuttle.
NASA has received requests for shuttle debris from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Air Force, which want to study how spacecraft crash, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
The agency is in the process of deciding whether any Columbia debris will ever be publicly displayed. The debate is moving up the chain of command, said Scott Thurston, NASA vehicle manager, who is leading the Columbia preservation team.