Researchers recover data on disk that survived Columbia crash

The device from the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia was found in a dried up lake bed along the shuttle's debris area

Researchers who extracted data from a hard drive onboard the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia mission say the device was so thoroughly damaged by its fiery crash to Earth that it resembled simply a cracked "hunk of metal" when it appeared at their door six months later.

Still, over the past four-and-a-half years, data recovery specialists at Kroll Ontrack Inc. have painstakingly retrieved 99 percent of data store on the charred 400MB Seagate hard drive's 2.5-in. platters in just two days. The device was found in a dried up lake bed along the shuttle's debris area.

The Columbia Shuttle disintegrated on atmosphere re-entry over Texas on February 1, 2003, killing all seven crew members and scattering debris across Texas and Louisiana. Investigators determined that a piece of foam that became dislodged after launch damaged the ship's thermal protection system and led to the uncontrolled heat build-up that destroyed the spacecraft.

At the time of the accident, the shuttle was returning from a 16-day mission to conduct a variety of atmospheric scientific experiments. One of those tests was an experiment to determine how xenon gas flows in zero-gravity for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Information about that test was discovered intact on the damaged drive, said Jon Edwards, senior clean room engineer at Kroll, a member of the recovery team.

Edwards said the circuit board on the bottom of the drive was "burned almost beyond recognition" and that all of its components had fallen off. Every piece of plastic on the model ST9385AG hard drive melted, he noted, and all the electronic chips inside had burned and come loose.

Two other hard drives aboard the Columbia were too severely damaged to extract any useable data, he added. Edwards said the older Seagate hard drive -- about eight-years-old in 2003 -- featured much greater fault tolerance and durability than current hard drives of similar capacity.

Before recovery could begin, a great deal of dirt and other debris had to be cleaned from the storage device. A rubber seal at the top of the hard drive was completely burned off enabling dirt and other charred elements to enter the casing. Everything but the drive's platters were virtually unusable, remarked Edwards

"The heads were bent and they were touching where they shouldn't have so we had to carefully cut and bend metal away from the platters to get them out without causing more damage," said Edwards.

Once cleaned, the platters were placed into a spare drive and carefully aligned with a new motor. Because the original circuit board was destroyed, Kroll had to use 'trial and error' to determine which firmware was needed for the device.

Although damage to the drive worsened once the team got it up and running, the data recovery specialists retrieved 99 percent of the drive's DOS-formatted contents. "It was only a couple hundred megabytes of data which isn't much by today's terms, but the data [the drive] contained was very valuable," noted Edwards.

By using data recovered by Kroll, five years after the Columbia tragedy researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have published findings about the Critical Viscosity of Xenon tests in April in the Physical Review E journal.

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