One of Israel’s leading newspapers published a photograph it claims as evidence of two cracks in the left wing of the Columbia more than a week before the space shuttle broke up on re-entry, killing all seven crew members.

Newspapers published this image purported to show cracks on space shuttle Columbia

The daily Maariv said the image, which the tabloid published under the blaring front-page headline, “Wing of Death,” was captured eleven days ago from footage aired on Israeli television as Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon spoke with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The photo gained worldwide attention through further publication by the Italian daily Corriere Della Sera, coverage by Agence France-Presse and the Australian Broadcasting Corp., and a link on the Drudge Report.

A spokesman at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Al Feinberg, told WorldNetDaily that the space agency could not comment until it has an original of the photograph, but said, “It sure looks goofy to me.”

Pat Ryan, a NASA spokesman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, told WND yesterday he had heard about the picture, but “nobody is going to say anything one way or another at this point.”

“Photos like that need to be given to the people doing the investigation so they can consider whether it’s an important part of what we need to know,” Ryan said.

After receiving a link to the photograph from WND, Kylie S. Moritz of the Johnson public-affairs office promised to get a response from a NASA engineer, but remarked, “It certainly looks suspect to me.”

Sam Segal, who is in charge of Maariv’s U.S. office, in New York, told WND that the photo actually belongs to NASA, since it was taken from NASA video footage.

Maariv has not contacted NASA to attempt to verify the photo, Segal said, insisting that the responsibility lies with Israeli television, which was his paper’s source.

An engineer in England posted a photo on his website that appears to be a higher quality version of the newspaper photo. That image apparently corresponds to the shuttle’s cargo bay bulkhead rather than a wing.

Photo from NASA footage that appears to show shuttle cargo bay bulkhead

The Israeli paper’s photo caption said the Israeli astronaut Ramon “presented the prime minister his view out of the windows of the Columbia shuttle and right there on the surface of the wing on the left side you could see a long crack and a dent.”

The caption continued, “Eleven days after, it was that very same wing that broke off the shuttle and finally brought it to its destruction. Even if NASA knew about the damage from the moment it happened, they could have done nothing except pray.”

Cracks in the argument

Tim Stevenson, an engineer at the Space Research Centre at Britain’s University of Leicester, expressed doubts about the photo in an interview with Agence France-Presse.

Space shuttle Columbia’s rollout to the launchpad (NASA photo)

“To be honest, the crew would have observed [a big crack] very, very quickly, particularly if it was big enough to be observed in any kind of video footage, and they would have acted very, very differently if they had observed it,” he said.

Another point, said Stevenson, was that a large, visible crack on the top surface of the wing “would manifest itself as a structural failure very early on.”

“Given the point at which NASA said the break-up occurred, the shuttle would have already undertaken its S-turn maneuvers [to slow its descent], which are relatively stressful.”

Stevenson concluded, “To put it bluntly, if the wing was going to break up, it was going to break up a long time before that point.”

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