HEMPHILL, Texas – Space shuttle Columbia's nose landing gear has been found largely intact in the woods near Toledo Bend Reservoir, officials said Wednesday.
Navy Capt. Chris Murray said residents found the gear Tuesday and notified divers who were searching the East Texas lake for shuttle debris. NASA identified the object as Columbia's nose gear.
Also, a cylindrical hunk of metal found in the reservoir last week was identified by NASA Wednesday as part of Columbia's brake assembly.
Johnson Space Center spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said it is unclear whether the nose gear could shed any light on what destroyed the shuttle. Investigators are looking at whether a breach in Columbia's left wing brought down the spacecraft.
The 8-foot piece of debris was found lying in the dirt, the wheels still on their hubs, said Navy Chief Warrant Officer Roger Riendeau.
Divers and officials with the Navy, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Galveston and Houston police departments continued searching the lake for pieces of the shuttle. Witnesses reported that large pieces splashed into the water after the spacecraft disintegrated Feb. 1.
Diving is expected to continue through the next 45 days, NASA spokeswoman Kathy Barnstorff said Wednesday.
The search has been frustrated by bad weather and water so murky that visibility is only 20 inches. So far, divers have found only one shuttle part -- Columbia's brake assembly.
At the bottom of the reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana line is a sunken forest littered with anything from barns to mailboxes left behind when the area was flooded.
"It's really the worst underwater search environment you can find," said Navy Capt. Jim Wilkins, who is supervising salvage and diving operations.
The longer the search drags on, the more officials are beginning to question reports from fishermen saying a "big chunk" of debris, perhaps the size of a compact car, hit the lake.
"I think there could be something there," Wilkins said. "It's awfully hard to tell. ... We could pass over it and not see it."
Meanwhile, U.S. Forest Service officials coordinating the ground searches said they are racing to find as much material as possible before spring foliage obscures things.