Southern Utah Shuttle Debris Search Called Off

Southern Utah Shuttle Debris Search Called Off

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LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Searchers continued to find bits of fragmented metal and aluminum debris Sunday across a rural part of Nevada in the hunt for space shuttle Columbia debris.

In Utah, the search officially ended after a NASA investigator confirmed the debris gathered Saturday didn't come from the space shuttle.

Digital photographs of the material found in Nevada were sent to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for analysis and verification. NASA has not confirmed whether any of the pieces came from the shuttle.

Casey Wood, who was dispatched by NASA to aid in the search, said earlier he was "80 percent sure" that the pieces originated from the shuttle.

Wood by Sunday afternoon had changed his mind. He said the pieces resembled something from a weather balloon and not the shuttle. The more he found, the less convinced he became the scraps fell off the shuttle, he said.

"I have not found any orbiter part numbers on the debris that has been collected," Wood said. "Some of the things we found today indicate it is not from Columbia. But we are not ready to give up yet. There is still a possibility the pieces were from the shuttle."

Wood, an employee of NASA contractor United Space Alliance in Cape Canaveral, Fla., is assisting local authorities as they comb a 30-square-mile area near Panaca for debris.

Among the items being sought is a large section of the shuttle's landing gear that might have fallen in Nevada. Wood said that the pieces look like aluminum foil with strands of fiberglass attached to them. Some of the debris appeared to be burnt.

"It looks like chaff," he said.

Wood said the pieces will be sent to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where all the shuttle debris is being collected. Wood said NASA should know by Tuesday whether the material was from Columbia.

Over the weekend, search teams turned up several scraps that varied in size. Maj. Garret Coleman, of the Nevada Wing Civil Air Patrol, said some of the chunks he saw were anywhere from one to four inches in length.

"It looks like tin foil with a fibrous material attached to it," said Coleman, who is helping lead the search in Panaca. "It's not charred but there is some darkness to it that looks like it was exposed to some heat."

Coleman said the search of the area about 170 miles north of Las Vegas has been slowed by the discovery of the pieces. So far, about 80 volunteers and professional trackers from around the state and California have covered roughly five square miles.

NASA on Sunday also requested that authorities expand the search about 35 miles west of Panaca. A search spokesman said NASA believes bits from the shuttle could have landed in that area.

Authorities said the recovered debris appears to have fallen just north of the space shuttle's trajectory.

If the pieces are from Columbia, they would represent the westernmost debris recovered from the shuttle, which came apart Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts on board.

Finding the landing would give NASA investigators important clues into why the shuttle disintegrated just minutes before it was scheduled to land in Florida. NASA officials are investigating whether superheated air penetrated the wheel well, which could have triggered the shuttle's destruction.

About 80 miles from Panaca, 35 searchers spent Sunday scouring sage brush and mountainous terrain in Utah's Washington County.

Sheriff Kirk Smith said the search there was ending after the hunt failed to turn up any shuttle pieces.

A NASA official Sunday examined several items found in the Kolob mountain area near Zion National Park, but none of them were related to the shuttle, Smith said.

"We did the best we could on it, and something could be there that we missed. But we searched and didn't find anything," he said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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