CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - It's a photo that has been viewed by millions - a small white puff coming off the left underbelly of the space shuttle Columbia 82 seconds after it lifted off the launch pad.
The puff was a doormat-size piece of foam that had peeled off the external fuel tank and caromed off the orbiter at nearly 500 mph. It could be the key to what caused Columbia to break into pieces in a fiery streak across the sky when it tried to return to Earth two weeks later.
But the government camera in the best position to record the damage was out of focus and had been for weeks.
Now, the two companies that operate the camera - the ones to blame for the blurry photo - either won't talk about it or blame the other partner.
The camera is operated by Johnson Controls Inc., which is based in Milwaukee. Company spokesman Darryll L. Fortune said the camera worked fine. What failed, he said, was a 400-inch focal-length telescopic lens operated and maintained by Computer Services Raytheon.
Officials with that company would not comment. Vice President Francis Shill in Cape Canaveral referred calls to a corporate spokesman, Mike Dickerson in El Segundo, Calif., who would not comment Thursday.
The Air Force, the owner of the equipment, agrees that the problem was with the lens.
The trouble emerged last fall, said Lt. Col. Mike Rein of the Air Force's 45th Space Wing, based at Patrick Air Force Base.
The Air Force notified Computer Services Raytheon, and its people went to work, Rein said.
"They actually thought they had it fixed, were ready to go," he said.
But the photos of the launch Jan. 16 proved them wrong. They were fuzzy, so Computer Services Raytheon went back to work while Columbia was in orbit, and again, thought it had the problem fixed, Rein said.
"They were going to shoot the landing to make sure they had it, but, obviously, there wasn't a landing," Rein said.
The photo equipment involved is part of a network of more than 100 cameras up and down the coast that photograph all Air Force and NASA rocket launches.
Although the Air Force owns the gear, it has a $57.3 million, eight-year contract with Johnson Controls and Computer Services Raytheon to operate and maintain the cameras. The Air Force recoups some of the money by billing NASA $189,000 for launch photos that involve the space agency.
The out-of-focus camera is in Cocoa Beach, Fla., about 15 miles south of the launch pad where Columbia blasted into orbit.
Officials with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration would not discuss the dispute.
Neither Kennedy Space Center photo editor Ken Thornsley nor his boss, Charles Brown, would agree to be interviewed. And despite three days of requests, Kennedy Space Center Director Roy Bridges also was not available. The space agency denied requests by the Orlando Sentinel to interview Thornsley, Brown and Bridges.
Since the disaster, NASA scientists have been trying to determine what caused the shuttle to break apart. One theory is that the foam that struck the shuttle damaged the heat-resistant tiles that line its belly, leaving it vulnerable to 3,000-degree heat as it returned to Earth.
Rene Stutzman is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.