Astronaut ‘e-mailed
brother about wing’

By Joe Kovacs

Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia were apparently so concerned about possible damage to the orbiter during launch, that they photographed the left wing and even sent e-mails about it.

That’s according to Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who sits on the Senate committee charged with oversight of NASA.

David Brown

Allen learned of the worries from a phone conversation he had with Arlington, Va., resident Doug Brown, the brother of mission specialist David Brown.

He briefly recounted the discussion during a speech memorializing the seven astronauts who lost their lives Saturday during re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.

Allen said Doug Brown had told him that in private e-mails while the mission was still in progress, his brother David was “concerned” about Columbia’s left wing.

The wing has become a focal point of the investigation into the shuttle’s disintegration, as NASA has been looking at the possibility that protective tiles damaged at takeoff by falling foam insulation could have led to the tragedy during its descent.

But shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore appeared to back away from that theory yesterday.

NASA backs away from foam-damage theory

“It doesn’t make sense to us that a piece of debris could be the root cause of the loss of Columbia and its crew,” Dittemore said. “There’s got to be another reason.”

According to Sen. Allen, Doug Brown had said the crew took pictures of the left wing, though Doug said he never actually received any such photos in the e-mails.

Dittemore rejected as ”impossible” the claim photos were taken of the wing since it’s not visible from the shuttle windows.

A NASA spokesman told a Virginia newspaper he also didn’t believe the crew had an unobstructed view of the area in question.

“At this point we believe the crew could only see the tip of the wing from the crew compartment,” NASA’s Bob Jacobs told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “They could not see the leading edge. Nor could they see the bottom where the strike appears to have taken place.”

He added the space agency was still “trying to track what if any e-mails were sent to the family.”

“All indications that we had from the crew was that they were not concerned about the insulation strike and if there is new information suggesting otherwise we would be interested in hearing from the family,” Jacobs told the paper.

When asked about the e-mails regarding the wing, Michael Kostelnik, a deputy administrator with NASA, said he wouldn’t be surprised if astronauts mentioned it in correspondence to family members, but he didn’t believe the crew was especially worried.

“The sense throughout the NASA community was that this was not a safety issue, and I think the crew accepted that,” Kostelnik said.

Meanwhile, Dittemore says the search for debris continues to move West to include states such as California, Arizona and New Mexico.

A California Institute of Technology scientist reported seeing a blazing trail of debris behind the shuttle over the Golden State.

Dittemore says finding debris in the West would be very significant, “and that’s why we’ve invested a lot of energy in following up on these reports.”

He did not make a direct reference to a photograph snapped by an amateur astronomer in San Francisco purported to show some kind of strange electrical-type phenomenon surrounding the orbiter, but he called upon the public to submit any photographs of the disaster, even by e-mailing them directly to the space agency.

Dittemore says four-wheel vehicles, horses, and helicopters equipped with sensors are being utilized in the ongoing hunt for Columbia’s remnants.

NASA has created a list of certain debris engineers believe is more important than others to help determine the cause of the breakup.

“Things like the left wing, pieces of the left wing, tiles, recorders – whether they be voice or data recorders,” Dittemore said.

Today’s related story:

Camera catching shuttle ‘zap’ had own glitch