CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 10 (UPI) -- A piece of shuttle Columbia's left wing, which showed signs of trouble minutes before the spaceship tore apart over Texas last week, is among the 12,000 pieces of wreckage recovered so far, officials said Monday.
Gathered, tagged and bagged at two Air Force bases in Texas and Louisiana, the debris is being trucked this week to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with the first loads due for arrival on Wednesday, said NASA spokesman Bill Johnson.
Accident investigators will reconstruct as much of the spaceship as possible, in an attempt to learn why Columbia failed to safely sail through the upper atmosphere in preparation for landing as it had 27 times previously.
The shuttle was 16 minutes away from touchdown in Florida on Feb. 1, when communications and radio contact with ground control teams and tracking radars were lost.
Seven astronauts -- including Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon -- died in the accident.
NASA relinquished control of the accident investigation to a special board led by retired Adm. Harold Gehman, who has had no previous affiliation with the space agency, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said.
Two legislators have requested President George W. Bush appoint a totally independent and non-NASA financed and staffed board to alleviate any concern or appearance that NASA will conceal the truth about Columbia's demise.
O'Keefe, however, countered that the board has totally autonomy to hire outside experts, expand its membership and conduct the probe. NASA had in place a contingency plan, ironically rehearsed less than three months before the accident, which named Gehman and the board members and outlined their responsibilities in case of a shuttle accident.
"The contingency plan was developed post-Challenger and it was updated as a document as recently as September," said O'Keefe.
"We ran a simulation of it, having secure knowledge that we'll never have to use such a thing, in November, and as fate had it, it was extremely beneficial to have done all that due diligence in advance."
Also Monday, NASA said a decision is expected as early as this week about whether to start training a two-member caretaker crew to take over space station operations after the current three-man Expedition Six crew departs.
Rather than replacing the crew, which had been scheduled to return to Earth in March, with Expedition Seven, NASA and its international partners are considering flying just two people to save water -- supplies of which are the most affected by the inability of the shuttle fleet to service the station, said O'Keefe.
"We have enough fuel, for example, to last for another year, or year and a half," O'Keefe said. "The real pacing item is going to be water ... roughly half of the provisioning comes from the shuttle flights."
The shuttle's electrical system produces water as a byproduct. Bags of water are transferred to the station throughout the shuttle's week-long stays at the outpost. NASA grounded the shuttle fleet indefinitely, pending the results of the Columbia accident investigation.
The recovery of the ship's left wing could prove critical in finding the cause of the accident. Minutes before the break-up, sensors on Columbia's left wing and fuselage registered temperature spikes. Other sensors stopped relaying data.
The shuttle, which was traveling 18 times the speed of sound at the time, was under the flight control of computers, which struggled to compensate for a drag on the left side before atmospheric forces tore the ship apart.
The Florida spaceport is bracing for the first of what promises to be dozens of truckloads of debris arriving from Texas and Louisiana. The components will housed in a new hanger, built by the state's space development board, to house an experimental aircraft that was to test technologies for a shuttle replacement. That program, however, was canceled two years ago.