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Space Shuttle Columbia

Shuttle's data recorder found intact

Space Shuttle Columbia crew
Space shuttle Columbia crew

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HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- An electronic box containing vital information on the descent of the space shuttle Columbia was found intact Wednesday in a field near Hemphill, Texas, NASA officials and a spokesman for the board investigating the disaster said.

The Orbital Experiment Support System -- about the size of a bread box -- captures an enormous amount of data on the orbiter's descent and records it to tape. It's designed to activate 10 minutes before "entry interface," which occurs at about 400,000 feet when the shuttle first encounters the effects of Earth's atmosphere.

The box could be the "golden nugget" that investigators with the Columbia Accident Investigation Board have been looking for as they try to determine exactly why the shuttle broke up as it re-entered the atmosphere February 1, killing all seven crew members aboard.

Commander Rick Husband; pilot William McCool; payload commander Michael Anderson; mission specialists David Brown, Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla; and Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, died that day.

The disintegration of the orbiter began west of California and ended over Texas, with the main debris field located in eastern Texas and western Louisiana.

The electronic box is unique to the shuttle Columbia and was used in early shuttle missions to verify predictions on design. It records temperature readings, aerodynamic pressure, vibrations, strain, acceleration and rates of pitch, roll and yaw -- the three axes of flight.

A CAIB spokesman said the board is very excited about the discovery because it contains data that was not sent down to Mission Control via telemetry.

The box will be further examined at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the rest of the debris from the shuttle has been placed on a grid in a hangar.

The shuttle has no flight data recorder, like a commercial airliner. However, the information transmitted to Mission Control via telemetry is far more than would be found in a so-called black box.

Tuesday, NASA engineers told the CAIB that preliminary tests have not narrowed down the list of possible causes for the space shuttle's disintegration. The engineers have been reconstructing the last moments of the shuttle's flight, trying to determine when, where and how the orbiter was damaged.

The panel discredited an earlier theory that super-heated gas came through a breach in the wheel-well door, because temperature sensors would indicate otherwise.

In addition to computer modeling, the NASA team placed a 10-inch model, approximately one-50th the size of the actual shuttle, in a wind tunnel. Reconstructing the vehicle's re-entry using NASA data, mass properties and aerodynamics tools, the team put the model into a controlled simulation to compare it to what happened during flight.

By removing various panels on the leading edge of the model's wing, they found effects similar to what temperature sensors indicated along the Columbia's fuselage during re-entry. However, they said, because the models and wind tunnels used in the simulation were limited, the effects in the wind tunnel were not enough to cause the disturbance seen in the actual shuttle breakup.

CNN Correspondent Miles O'Brien and Producer David Santucci contributed to this report.

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