Video details start of shuttle's breakup

Discovery lands
Discovery in space
STS-121 shuttle
Shuttle Discovery missions
HOUSTON - Investigators of the Columbia disaster showed a nearly complete video yesterday of the space shuttle's flight from the California coastline to its breakup over east Texas, a mosaic assembled from about 15 clips shot by amateur astronomers early on the morning of Feb. 1.

The video, along with other testimony given at a hearing held by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, provides additional evidence that the obiter began burning up even as it crossed over California when hot plasma gases began flowing through its left wing.

The video starkly shows two separate events when large still-unidentified pieces detached from the shuttle, minutes before the spacecraft broke apart and killed the seven astronauts aboard. The two events show bright white flashes departing from the Columbia, which is seen as a white dot.

The videos were shot in Las Vegas, Flagstaff, Ariz., and Albuquerque, N.M., among other cities, said NASA engineer R. Douglas White. A final portion of the video was shot from the cockpit of an Army Apache helicopter, using an infrared targeting system, and shows what is believed to be the three big main engines breaking free.

In some cases, the amateur camera operators marked the videos with time coordinated to atomic clocks. In another case, the video catches a shot of Venus, allowing investigators with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to determine the time and relative position of the shuttle. And some of the videos include the precise coordinates of the location of the cameras, using the global positioning system.

By creating an elaborate mosaic of the tapes, NASA was able to synchronize the tapes to within one second of each other. Officials hope that will enable them to coordinate the video images with separate radar images from the air traffic control system and then determine where critical debris may be located.

But one gap exists, covering the approximately one minute of flight that occurred between Albuquerque and Dallas, White said.

"To our great surprise, people are still very interested apparently in the space program," White said. "These folks got up before sunrise and went out on their own and stuck their camera up in the sky. Most of them knew where to look in the sky because they are amateur astronomers. Without these folks, we wouldn't know any of this. These people are definitely our heroes."

Within weeks of the accident, NASA had received 3,000 offers of personal observations, still photographs and videotapes, White said. The decision was quickly made that the videos provided the most useful evidence, and in most cases people volunteered their tapes to NASA with no strings attached.

In two isolated cases, NASA was strung along by people who "must have been under the impression they were going to collect on the Columbia gravy train, but they are the huge exception to the rule," White said.

Ralph Vartabedian and Lianne Hart are reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune publishing newspaper.

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