has recovered a videotape shot inside Columbia's cockpit as it descended to Earth that shows four of the seven astronauts minutes before their ship began to experience trouble.
The tape, recovered from the wreckage, has 13 minutes of recovered footage. The rest of it is burned, and it ends four minutes after the shuttle's atmospheric entry.
An official close to the investigation said there is nothing in the videotape that sheds any light on Columbia's impending doom; it shows the astronauts putting on their gloves and chatting normally. Neither the official nor a NASA spokeswoman knew where, when or how the tape was found, but it was thought to have been recovered in Texas some time in the past week.
The board has known about the videotape for the past several days but did not discuss it at its weekly news conference yesterday afternoon, the official said, because it wanted to give NASA time to show it to the astronauts' families.
Meanwhile, the board investigating the Columbia disaster said yesterday it wants to know more about a mysterious object that almost certainly fell off the shuttle and was flying beside the spacecraft during its second day in orbit.
The object orbiting near Columbia was not noticed during the flight. After the shuttle's destruction on Feb. 1, the Air Force Space Command began analyzing radar data that might shed light on the disaster, and noticed the object.
Initially, NASA said it suspected the object might be frozen waste water dumped overboard or an orbiting piece of space junk that the shuttle happened to encounter.
Brigadier-General Duane Deal, a board member, discounted both possibilities yesterday and said the object almost had to have come from the shuttle itself.
"You or I could invent a dozen scenarios," Brig.-Gen. Deal said. "It could have been something loose that separated, it could have been something inside the payload bay." It also could have been part of the left wing, where all the overheating and other troubles developed during re-entry.
He described the object as about 30 centimetres by 40 centimetres in size and said it was flying in tandem with Columbia one day into the mission. It was within 15 metres of the shuttle and, within that first day, started separating farther and farther away until it burned up on re-entry three days later, he said.
"It's not like my friend Rick Husband rendezvoused with a piece in orbit," Brig.-Gen. Deal said, referring to Columbia's commander. "It was something that more than likely came loose."