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The Engineer

The Life and Times of Donald F. Simmons

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Columbia investigation

It looks like the investigation into the Columbia tragedy is zeroing in on the exact sequence of events. They've been greatly aided by the discovery a few weeks back of a black box from the shuttle, almost intact. Columbia, as the original orbiter, is the only shuttle to carry them. As a great deal of information from the shuttle is constantly relayed to the ground (even during re--entry) they were not included in later vehicles, as it was judged unlikely they would survive a major accident.

Anyway, the box data shows that abnormal heating on the left wing begin almost three minutes earlier than was picked up by other sensors, only slightly after re-entry began. The location of the heating was very near where the object was seen to strike the wing during the shuttle's lift-off. It is looking very likely that there was sufficient damage on the leading edge to cause a breach into the wing during re-entry. A radar trace of an object leaving the shuttle while it was in orbit may have been part of the leading edge.

Complete discussion can be found here.