In what could be one of the most significant debris discoveries yet from the shattered Columbia, searchers found a data recorder that may hold valuable clues as to what destroyed the space shuttle, the accident investigation board said Wednesday night.
A spokeswoman for the board, Laura Brown, said the ship's recorder was intact but sustained some heat damage. Officials are hoping that temperature and aerodynamic pressure data can be retrieved from its magnetic tape, she said.
Brown compared the recorder to an airplane's black box.
"We have no way of knowing whether the data can be recovered," she said. But she added that if it can, "it will give us, hopefully, a lot of information about what was going on with the orbiter."
The recorder was discovered near Hemphill, Texas, and was being sent to Johnson Space Center for analysis. Officials said they believe it was found Wednesday.
The discovery was all the more thrilling for NASA and the investigation board because it had been days since any major pieces of the shuttle had been found.
Brown said these recorders - called the orbiter experiment support systems - normally are turned on right before a space shuttle begins its descent through the atmosphere and run for one or two hours.
Columbia disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1 during its atmospheric re-entry, just 16 minutes short of a planned Florida touchdown.
The investigation board suspects the left wing of Columbia was breached, possibly by launch debris 16 days earlier, and that the searing atmospheric gases penetrated the hole and carved a deadly path through the wing and into the left landing gear compartment. All seven astronauts were killed.
About 30,000 pieces of Columbia have been found, representing nearly 20 percent of the descending shuttle.
Shuttles have a variety of computers and data recorders, but nothing directly comparable to the black boxes on airplanes that give crash investigators detailed flight information.
Brown said the recovered data recorder is of a type used for the initial shuttle flights back in the early 1980s, to collect information from sensors. It was modified over the years, she said.
Earlier Wednesday, well before the recorder was found and identified, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said investigators may never find a single definitive cause for the accident.
"We're six weeks into this and there's not going to be an `ah-hah'," he said in an address to the NASA Advisory Council at Stennis Space Flight Center in Mississippi.
O'Keefe said contributing factors could include hardware failure, the breakdown of processes and procedures during the flight and bad judgment calls. He did not elaborate on those factors, but noted: "I bet it's going to be a combination of all three."
O'Keefe said he does, however, expect answers that will enable NASA to resume shuttle flights.
"My personal sense is that the problem is definable and the problem is fixable," he said.
In New Orleans, meanwhile, NASA's deputy associate administrator for spaceflight, Michael Kostelnik, led a meeting to discuss how to keep the shuttle program active through 2015. The two-day meeting was billed as the beginning of the space agency's process of determining how to extend the lifespan of the three remaining space shuttles.
The shuttles, which were built to fly no more than 100 missions, could be needed far longer than expected, Kostelnik said. Columbia was on its 28th mission.
Kostelnik likened the shuttles to the military's B-52 bombers, most of which were built in the 1950s but have been repeatedly updated and remain in use.
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Columbia accident investigation board: www.caib.us