Skip to comments.3,000 Amateurs Offer NASA Photos of Columbia's Demise
Posted on 04/23/2003 11:48:04 PM PDT by Timesink
April 22, 2003
3,000 Amateurs Offer NASA Photos of Columbia's Demise
Associated PressContrails from the Columbia are seen in a video image taken by two Dutch military pilots training at Fort Hood, Tex., on Feb. 1.
OUSTON, April 19 - Dan McNew thought he had shot the home movie of a lifetime. He had aimed his digital video camera at the shuttle Columbia as it returned to earth on Feb. 1; living near Dallas, in the path of the returning shuttle, he had caught the sight on video several times before.
When he viewed the images in light of the shuttle's loss, he thought he might have captured a crucial moment. He read about the shuttle's yawing spin before breakup and sent an e-mail message to a reporter.
"That description matches perfectly with what I caught on video that morning," he wrote. He had zoomed in on the shuttle as it hurtled by and captured it flying sideways, he wrote, adding, "I believe I am the only one who has a clear close-up video of this event."
He had given a copy of his videotape to NASA two days after the accident, and the space agency came back and bought his camera so that researchers could determine whether the digital images stored in ones and zeros on the tape showed what Mr. McNew claimed. And he waited to hear whether he had made history.
In the video nation, almost no moment goes untaped, and anyone might be the next Abraham Zapruder, whose jumpy images of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy provided invaluable evidence to a generation of investigators (and conspiracy theorists).
The nearly ubiquitous cameras grab images of mothers slapping their children in parking lots and Rodney King being beaten - and, as it turns out, the space shuttle Columbia during its descent. Some 3,000 people contacted NASA in the days after the shuttle disaster to offer their firsthand reports, still photographs and videos of the shuttle's entry into the atmosphere. Ultimately, some 12,000 videos and images streamed in.
For weeks, researchers combed through the photographs and videos, going to great lengths to verify that each was what its donor claimed that it was. Some turned out to be hoaxes, and a few were not even pictures of the shuttle. The researchers then culled the best and stitched together a video narrative of the flight.
And it has paid off: the images have provided a trove of data that has helped investigators piece together what happened in the final minutes of the flight.
NASA and the independent board investigating the accident have spliced video images together to tell the story of the shuttle's final descent, showing when and where major pieces of debris came off the orbiter.
The imagery has helped NASA guide debris searchers, and has helped to show that the shuttle was shedding parts before the signs of serious trouble appeared on sensors that could be read by mission control on the ground.
The process of determining which videos provided the most useful information fell to a team drawn largely from NASA's Image Science and Analysis Group, at the Johnson Space Center, which has long analyzed images of spacecraft during missions.
These analysts are practiced in enhancing images to bring out details that may otherwise go unnoticed.
The group has used the same techniques to clarify the video images showing the chunk of foam from the external tank as it tumbled into the shuttle about 80 seconds after liftoff, and has even aided police in criminal investigations based on photographic evidence.
The team painstakingly analyzed every still photo and video, checking to see whether any alterations had been made.
In some cases the investigators even bought the cameras from people, like Mr. McNew, who had particularly promising material, to see if they could recreate the conditions at the time the tapes were shot, to check colors to make sure they were accurate, and to figure out how to sharpen the pictures more effectively.
"Any footage that we can obtain is important to NASA," said a member of the video team.
The team's leader, Paul Hill, a missions operation director for the space shuttle, presented the video results last month to the independent board investigating the shuttle disaster. He said all but about a minute or two of the shuttle's path over the United States had been filmed.
(There is a gap between Albuquerque and Dallas, which Mr. Hill said was not surprising, considering the sparse population in that area.)
On the videos, flashes and bright dots of debris leaving the orbiter gave important clues to the times and locations of pieces of the shuttle that were lost on its way back to earth, and to help identify which "debris events" seemed most important.
A bright flash of 6 to 12 seconds and signs of an object breaking away from the shuttle led NASA to send debris recovery teams to Caliente, Nev., to search for the object, called Debris No. 6, which was tracked by radar on the way down. So far, nothing has been recovered from that snow-covered area, but searches are expected to continue.
The brightest flash occurred over Arizona, and the flash persisted for nearly eight seconds, depending on which video is viewed.
That flash, and the image of bright dots falling away, was called Debris No. 14.
The NASA video team used some ingenious techniques to fix the time of the video bits, sometimes relying on celestial clues. The video of the Debris No. 6 flash, for example, showed the shuttle flying in front of Venus.
"When our flight dynamics folks saw this, they were very excited because this allowed us to put this video within plus or minus a second," Mr. Hill told the independent commission investigating the disaster.
Because they knew the location of the person making the video, the research team was able to use astronomical data to establish the precise moment that the video was shot.
The teams are also analyzing the images in hopes of gleaning spectroscopic data from the flashes, to determine precisely what was burning in any given flash - whether aluminum or silica or the reinforced carbon-carbon composite that makes up the leading edge of the shuttle's wings.
Mr. Hill had high praise for the volunteer videographers. "These people are definitely our heroes," he said.
Not everyone was so heroic, however. Some of the early submissions were hoaxes, and researchers spent valuable time having to debunk them.
"They have been able to sort out the hoaxes and the false images and the artifacts from the things that are real," said Doug White, an official at the NASA contractor United Space Alliance, who has been working with the video team.
Some were laughably inept, like the video submitted to NASA that clearly showed a bright spot moving across the screen, but turned out to be cars driving down the road past the camera with their headlights on.
Then there were the widely circulated photos billed as Israeli satellite images of Columbia exploding in space. They were actually taken from the 1998 movie "Armageddon."
Other people with video had profit in mind. "There have been two isolated cases out West of two individuals who strung us along for several weeks before it finally became apparent to us that they must have been under the impression they were going to collect on the Columbia gravy train," Mr. Hill told members of the board.
In the case of Mr. McNew, NASA concluded that he had not, in fact, captured a video image of the shuttle flying sideways. Video analysis showed that the camera distorted the image, producing a visual halo that made it appear several times the size it would be if the picture had been clear.
Still, said John Ira Petty, a spokesman for NASA, "We really are grateful to these people; we need all of the information we can get."
Mr. McNew said he was disappointed, but happy to have helped in some way. "It was exciting to think that I possibly had something," he said. "My new motto is, `Life is unpredictable, so keep a camera nearby and catch it.' "