Chunk is not part of shuttle

February 07, 2003 12:00 am

By GENEVIEVE

BOOKWALTER

A chunk of what was thought to be rocket tile is probably Styrofoam.

The news came yesterday afternoon after Doug Kohl — a Confidence resident who formerly worked as a site test conductor at John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and helped repair and maintain space shuttle Columbia — looked at an object a Deer Flat man found in his back yard Monday.

"It's not it," he said, after returning from the Tuolumne County Sheriff's found-property room. "It's a piece of cooler."

After seeing digital pictures of the object, Kohl thought it could be part of the shuttle orbiter that fell apart Saturday morning as it returned to Earth after a 16-day mission.

Kohl said it would be likely that the first pieces to come off the orbiter — which NASA now believes began disintegrating over the West Coast — would have been the heat-protective tiles that line the outside of the craft.

But after seeing the Deer Flat chunk in person, Kohl — who worked with the tiles for 12 years — said it was not.

The piece found in the Grove-land area was not chalky and dense like shuttle tile, Kohl said.

Identifying the object was easy.

Getting into the found-property room was the challenge.

The sheriff's department was under strict orders from NASA not to let anyone see or handle the debris until a NASA investigative team arrived. Because Kohl no longer holds NASA employee identification, he couldn't get in on just his resume.

But after Kohl placed a few calls, NASA debris team lead investigator Mike Leinbach faxed Lt. John Steely a note with his business card attached.

Steely agreed to let Kohl in.

A NASA team might still come to the area to check out the piece, but doesn't seem to be in a hurry, Kohl said.

Although this piece doesn't appear to be the real thing, Kohl said he still thinks Columbia parts could be found in California. He encourages people to report trash that looks suspect. Because pieces were reported coming off the orbiter by West Coast observers, Kohl said they're still there to be found.