NASA Investigation

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NASA determined in tests four years ago that insulation was ripping away from the space shuttle's external tank -- as occurred on Columbia's liftoff -- because of heat, pressure and aerodynamic forces during launch.

The finding was confirmed Tuesday by the Air Force's Arnold Engineering Development Center at Tullahoma, Tennessee. The problem has plagued the shuttle for years and is being investigated as a possible factor in Columbia's catastrophic breakup Saturday.

A large piece of insulation that came off the external tank, striking Columbia during liftoff on Jan. 16t may have damaged the shuttle's heat-resistant tile and caused the accident during re-entry.