The plume trailing behind the shuttle's wing looks like "part of the heated material coming off the aircraft," an official close to the investigating board told the newspaper.
The image, basically a silhouette, shows something protruding along the leading edge of the left wing, and some analysts are now inclined to interpret that as showing that "a large number of RCC panels are missing," the Post quotes the official as saying, referring to the heavy-duty carbon-fiber heat shielding bolted to the wing's leading edge.
With the U-shaped panels gone, the front edge of the wing would be a flat expanse of naked aluminum, as streamlined as a two-by-four and very vulnerable to the ntense heat of reentry, the Post explains.
Wind tunnel tests have indicated to investigators that the leading edge must have lost several panels to produce the kind of heavy drag that the shuttle experienced in its last minutes, the official said. The final dregs of telemetry from the shuttle have shown that the onboard computer was fighting a losing battle to maintain control of the shuttle against increasing drag on the left side.
"If [the image] is real, and I'm beginning to think it is, it's showing a lot of pieces" missing. "Not one, not two . . . at least three," the official said to the Post. Most likely there was a zipper effect in which one panel came off, exposing and weakening the next until it ripped off, and then the next and the next.
The investigating board, headed by retired Navy Admiral Harold W. Gehman Jr., is putting together an ever-fuller portrait of Columbia's final moments before it broke up over Texas on Feb. 1, but members continue to stress that they are pondering more than one scenario to explain the accumulating evidence from the wreckage, telemetry, photographs and other sources, the Post points out.
The photo was taken at Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Meanwhile there's word that a new team will look into NASA's internal communications, including e-mails and management directives, as part of the investigation.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hess, an aviation mishap expert stationed at Kirtland, said Friday the team will aid three groups already investigating the structural design, operations and technical aspects of the shuttle.
The shuttle was returning from 16 days in space when it broke apart, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Investigators have theorized that foam or other debris that broke off the shuttle's big external fuel tank during liftoff Jan. 16 damaged the left wing and allowed hot gases to penetrate and destroy the shuttle.
Board spokeswoman Laura Brown said the fourth team will "look into NASA culture and some of the issues" raised during Thursday's public hearing in Houston by former NASA official Henry McDonald.
McDonald, who headed a shuttle study three years ago, told the board he and his panel found that top-level managers were not told of all potential problems or the rate at which they were occurring. He blamed archaic database systems and said his recommendations for a more modern consolidated method - and better risk assessments - were not implemented.
McDonald noted that the same type of communication breakdown he warned about seems to have hindered engineers who evaluated damage to Columbia's wing and concluded the shuttle and its astronauts were safe.
In late January, while Columbia was still in orbit, flight controllers and other engineers discussed the potential for severe damage to the wing but did not share their e-mails with top managers. The flurry of e-mails came after a formal engineering analysis by others concluded any damage by the debris posed no safety concern.
Brown said the new team will include Nobel Prize-winning physicist Douglas Osheroff of Stanford University and the director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, John Logsdon.
Former astronaut Sally Ride, the third person named to the board this week, will join the working group that is focused on operations. She became the first American woman in space in 1983.