CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 15 (UPI) -- Unlike its sister, shuttle Challenger, which was buried at the end of a prolonged and painful investigation, NASA wants to lend Columbia's debris for scientific research, officials said Tuesday.
"We want this to be another legacy for the crew," said launch director Mike Leinbach, who is overseeing the shuttle debris collection at the Kennedy Space Center.
More than 70,000 pieces of wreckage have been recovered and are providing accident investigators insight into what caused the ship to break apart over East Texas on Feb. 1 as it attempted to re-enter Earth's atmosphere. Seven astronauts died in NASA's worst accident since the 1986 Challenger disaster.
Among the most valuable finds: a flight data recorder that captured detailed information from sensors embedded in the ship during its descent and attempted re-entry.
Leinbach said researchers from a diverse group of fields -- including materials sciences, hypersonics, chemistry and atmospheric sciences -- will have access to debris for experiments. The pieces will be placed on loan, similar to how the agency handles its sample of lunar rocks and soils.
NASA hopes the research may also lead to safer spacecraft designs in the future, Leinbach said.
Still to be determined is what will be done with the remains from Columbia's crew cabin, which have been kept separate from the other debris, said NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham.
Also unknown is if any Columbia debris will be made available to the National Air and Space Museum or other public displays, added Leinbach.
Wreckage from the 1986 Challenger accident was buried in abandoned Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile silos at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Many pieces, however, remain on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which is expected to issue its first findings this week, is winding up the search for debris in primary zones in Texas and Louisiana. The hunt for key evidence that may lie in central and west Texas, as well as other western states, continues.
About 5,000 people per day have been searching a 2,400-square-mile area for wreckage from the accident.
Teams have finished 98 percent of the under water searches for debris in Lake Nacogdoches and Toledo Bend Reservoir, NASA said Tuesday. Ground teams have completed 78 percent of the primary search area, and airborne crews are 80 percent through with their assigned areas.
So far, about 36 percent of the orbiter by weight has been recovered, according to a NASA statement released Tuesday.