NASA team combs data for clues to Columbia disaster

NASA plans to use GIS provided by FEMA and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency to track and analyze debris on the ground.

'NASA's Bill Reddy

NASA began marshaling information in a central database and using models to help it analyze the Columbia space shuttle disaster within hours of the accident.

'Some is photographic, and some is data from the mission control center,' Bill Readdy, associate administrator for space flight, said of the database input. NASA locked down its shuttle computers immediately following the disaster to preserve data, Readdy said last week at a press briefing.

All of the information will go into the database that the agency will use to re-enact
the events that led to Columbia's disintegration, he said. 'Much of the information comes from telemetry processed at mission control' at the Houston Space Center.

Readdy reiterated statements made earlier by space shuttle program director Ron Dittemore that NASA has about 32 seconds of corrupted shuttle telemetry data.

Dittemore said the so-called 'ratty' data would not have been displayed to ground controllers because it failed to conform to the space agency's preset parameters by a factor of 90 percent or higher. But some frames of data that met the parameters by a factor of 50 percent or 60 percent could be useful in reconstructing the chain of events on the spacecraft, he said.

Dittemore said teams of engineers were making progress in their study of data and video from Columbia's launch and entry. He cautioned that it is a 'massive job' requiring round-the-clock efforts to reconstruct the events that led to a loss of communications with the shuttle over north central Texas 16 minutes before scheduled touchdown.

The engineers would need more time to retrieve the 32 seconds of data acquired by ground computers after mission control systems lost regular communication with Columbia, Dittemore said. Specialists will go directly to the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System ground station hub in White Sands, N.M., to collect and analyze that data in its raw form.

The shuttle relays telemetry data to mission control in the form of packets from thousands of sensors distributed throughout the craft. The systems record different readings at different rates and transmit some types of data only when they receive requests for it from NASA users on the ground.

Certain sets of data convey the operational status of shuttle systems and likely will be under the closest scrutiny, one technical specialist said. Analyzing the data will require various types of custom and specially adapted commercial software to correlate the signals to the shuttle's operational status, the technical specialist said.

NASA has developed many analysis tools to sift through the telemetry data and likely will develop more during the Columbia investigation.

The space agency's engineers also will use computer models to reconstruct Columbia's trajectory, Readdy said.

NASA plans to use geographic information systems provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency to track and analyze debris on the ground.

'We are relying on the Defense Department to do imaging analysis of the debris,' Readdy said.
Michael C. Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator for the International Space Station and shuttle programs, said state and local GIS programs will supplement the federal GIS applications.
'In these counties around Texas, some of the best GIS are in county offices,' Kostelnik said. 'We are transforming pins [representing debris] on maps to GIS.'

Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge said FEMA had activated an operations center to deal with the Columbia tragedy within 45 minutes of being alerted at 9:30 a.m. EST on Feb. 1. FEMA operations centers include broadband connections to state and local emergency response centers to provide coordinated, computer-assisted disaster tracking.

Debris field

One of FEMA's tasks will be to deal with 'a debris field that's about 200 miles long, and in some places, 50 miles wide,' Ridge said last week at a Washington press briefing.

NASA launched a new version of its Web site at www.nasa.gov just before the Columbia accident. The site was remade quickly in the aftermath of the tragedy to provide information about the accident investigation, including a section for the public to upload data helpful to the probe and let residents affected by falling debris file damage claims.

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