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Tuesday, 4 February, 2003, 12:40 GMT
Nasa expands search for debris
Worker collects shuttle debris from roof of a Texan school
Every piece of wreckage is deemed important
Experts investigating the break-up of the space shuttle Columbia have widened their search for debris and crew remains to the western United States.

While the search continues in Texas and Louisiana, Nasa officials say it is also being expanded to California in hopes of finding a "missing link" in the data from the first moments of the disaster.

SHUTTLE BREAK-UP
Map showing approximate area where shuttle debris has come down
Re-entered atmosphere at 12,500 mph (20,000 km/h)
Disintegrated 40 miles (65 kilometres) above the Earth
Debris scattered over Texas and Louisiana
A college professor in California has told Nasa that he saw tiles dropping from the shuttle as he watched its descent towards Florida through a telescope.

Searchers have reportedly found the "reasonably intact" nose cone of the shuttle in south-eastern Texas, near the Louisiana border.

George W Bush is to take part in a memorial service on Tuesday to honour the seven astronauts who died when the shuttle broke up shortly before it was due to land on Saturday.

The BBC's Nick Miles in Houston says that the US space agency is sending mixed messages about the possible role in the disaster of a piece of insulating foam that broke off and struck the shuttle during take-off.

Nasa analysis performed while the shuttle was in orbit concluded that damage to the Columbia would have been "superficial" and "inconsequential".

Insulating foam

But at a briefing on Monday, shuttle programme manager Ron Dittemore said Nasa engineers were focusing on the foam as the leading suspect in causing the problem that destroyed the Columbia.

The piece of insulation - possibly coated with ice - fell off the shuttle's external fuel tank and struck the left wing moving as fast as 2,400kph (1,500mph) about 80 seconds after lift-off, the time a space-bound shuttle is under its greatest stress.

TALKING POINT
This is not a time for arguments, we can learn from our mistakes and go ahead

Ibraheem Bayan, India
A Nasa report four days before the crash "made a determination that this was not a safety-of-flight-issue," Nasa's Michael Kostelnik told reporters on Monday.

Mr Dittemore said that at the time, he thought that was a unanimous conclusion, but that he learned after the crash that there had been some dissent by analysts who "didn't come forward".

"Now I am aware, here two days [after the crash], that there have been some reservations expressed by certain individuals," he said. "So we're reviewing those reservations again."

Vulnerable point

Nasa is considering the possibility that the impact from the foam damaged the shuttle's heat-resistant tiles near a wheel well, one of the most vulnerable parts of the vehicle.

First flight: 1981
Orbiting speed:
17,500 mph
Landing weight: 105 tonnes
Crew (for this mission):7
Mr Dittemore said pieces of insulation had broken off and hit the shuttle on previous missions without causing significant damage.

Officials say the latest evidence shows a sudden surge in temperature on the shuttle's left side as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere, indicating a possible problem with the spacecraft's protective tiles.

Investigators said the shuttle had to use its jets to correct its flight - so great was the drag on the left side of the vehicle in the minutes before its loss.

The drag was increasing faster than the shuttle's autopilot could correct for the problem.

Search

Search teams from about 30 agencies are involved in the hunt for pieces of the craft, which fell into woodland, back gardens and reservoirs after breaking up some 40 miles (65 kilometres) above the Earth.

Debris may not be located for weeks, for months, for years. Some of the debris may never be found

Thomas Kerss,
Nacogdoches sheriff
Pieces landed over at least a 100 mile area of east Texas and Louisiana, from fragments to chunks of twisted metal as big as cars.

"Debris may not be located for weeks, for months, for years. Some of the debris may never be found," said Sheriff Thomas Kerss of Nacogdoches County, Texas, where much of the wreckage has been found.

Officials plan to assemble the parts and reconstruct the shuttle to try to establish what happened in its final moments.

But collecting the remains is a monumental task: authorities have so far identified more than 1,200 debris sites in Nacogdoches alone.

Tribute

Mr Bush is expected to draw inspiration from former President Ronald Reagan in his tribute to Columbia's crew on Tuesday.

Mr Reagan's memorial for the crew of the Challenger, which exploded shortly after lift-off in 1986, is considered to be among his most eloquent speeches.

SHUTTLE CREW
Tribute to the Columbia's crew
Commander Rick Husband, US
Pilot William McCool, US
Michael Anderson, US
David Brown, US
Kalpana Chawla, US
Laurel Clark, US
Ilan Ramon, Israel
"Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short," he said almost exactly 17 years to the day before the Columbia tragedy.

"But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain," he said.

Echoing Mr Reagan's words, Mr Bush has promised that the US exploration of space would continue, despite the loss of the shuttle.

He sought a 3.1% increase in Nasa funding for next year, to $15.5bn, including $3.9bn for the space shuttle programme.

An opinion poll suggests that more than 80% of Americans want manned space flights to continue.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Nick Miles
"Hundreds of crash investigators are already on the ground"
The BBC's Luisa Baldini
finds out how Americans are dealing with yet another disaster

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See also:

03 Feb 03 | Europe
02 Feb 03 | Europe
02 Feb 03 | Americas
01 Feb 03 | Americas
03 Feb 03 | South Asia
04 Feb 03 | Science/Nature
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