Although the search for space shuttle Columbia debris centers around Texas and Louisiana, investigators recently shifted some of its focus out West, including Nevada, southern Utah and northern Arizona.
In a news conference from a few weeks ago, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board confirmed that the shuttle began losing pieces over California. The Feb. 1 flight path of the shuttle took Columbia over the Grand Canyon area.
James Hallock, a physicist and chief of the transportation department’s aviation safety division, said the space shuttle began to lose pieces about six minutes before it came apart over Texas.
"Obviously, it would be very important to understand what those pieces are, particularly the ones that started falling off at the very beginning,’’ Hallock said, adding that most pieces coming off early did not appear to be that big, based on light reflected off them in videotape. "For us to find something that far back along the path, I think it’s going to have to be a pretty substantial piece of the shuttle itself."
The flight path from California’s mountainous region to Nevada’s desert to the mighty Grand Canyon could be hiding some secrets.
"That’s a lot of area to be looking. ... we have the Grand Canyon area and all of the areas of southern California, the mountainous area and stuff like this, that even if we could home in on some of these things, it’s going to be very difficult to find it. But we sure would like to see it," Hallock said.
Maureen Oltrogge, public affairs officer for Grand Canyon National Park, was aware of search efforts in southern Utah but said Wednesday that local officials have not yet been contacted about a possible operation in the park.
As of a few weeks ago, a Coconino County Sheriff’s Office source said some "NASA scientists" were using Flagstaff as a base of operations. Jerry Blair, public information officer with the Flagstaff Police Department, would not confirm nor deny NASA’s presence and referred questions to the space agency.
Phone calls to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s public affairs office were not returned.
Aniceto Olais, chief ranger at Zion National Park, said rangers there were helping with a search in late February.
"NASA believes that there is a high probability that a piece of the shuttle came down within the search area, which is located on the park’s western boundary and includes a small area within the park itself," Olais wrote in a NPS report."A total of about 50 people searched the area, which is comprised of rough terrain filled with thick brush."
A key piece of evidence in the investigation would be the discovery of the shuttle’s landing gear. There were some objects discovered in rural Nevada north of Las Vegas. Finding the landing gear could give investigators important clues about why the shuttle broke apart. Seven astronauts lost their lives in the mishap.
Four counties in Arizona, including Coconino, are listed by NASA as being in possible search areas.
"The material would have fallen from the shuttle as it was re-entering Earth’s atmosphere along a line stretching generally from San Francisco to Lafayette, La.," a NASA press release reads. "Everyone is asked to be on the lookout for possible shuttle material 60 miles north or south of the re-entry track."
In particular, the following counties were singled out: Apache, Navajo, Coconino and Mohave in Arizona; Lincoln in Nevada; San Juan in Nevada; and Washington, Iron, San Juan, Garfield, Kane and Beaver in Utah.
"Anyone who finds material, suspected to be from the shuttle, is urged to avoid contact, because it may be hazardous due to fuel residue," the release reads, adding that discoveries can be reported by calling, toll-free 1-866-446-6603.
NASA also reminds citizens who may find shuttle debris that it is property of the U.S. government and is critical to the investigation of the mishap. Offenders can be prosecuted.