ALO ALTO, Calif., April 22 — Silicon Valley's hardware engineers and software hackers are famed for their quirky obsessions, but few have gone to the lengths of John Wharton.
Mr. Wharton, the designer of one of Silicon Valley's most popular computer chips, the Intel 8051 microcontroller, flew to Fiji twice in the past two weeks to comb the beaches for debris from the Mir space station. He said he became consumed with the idea after watching footage of the Russian station exploding in five fireballs along a 3,700 mile long, 125 mile wide swath of the Pacific Ocean on March 26. It entered the atmosphere about 40 miles southeast of Fiji.
"I had this impression of a giant piñata raining down foam insulation, gloves and Tang bottles," he said.
Now back in the United States after a three-day and a four-day sojourn on Fiji, Mr. Wharton has a small hoard of plastic bags filled with about 100 odd pieces of polyurethane foam, many of them embedded with tubes. He speculates that the foam was used to insulate the core module of the Mir against the harsh climate of space, and that the tubes carried coolants.
Then again, he concedes, he may have found the innards of a wayward refrigerator. "Either I managed to find what I was looking for or I'm delusional," he said. "I know that a shipwreck is an equally plausible explanation."
But Mr. Wharton said he was encouraged because all of the foam was found on the southern and southeastern shore of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu, mostly on Natadola, a remote beach that is unobstructed by the barrier reefs that surround much of the island. Mr. Wharton said he was trying to contact scientists and engineers in Russia associated with the Mir program to see if his quest was successful.
At least one United States expert on the Mir who has been consulting with Mr. Wharton says it plausible that the debris came from the station.
"It sounds like what he's found may be part of a heat exchanger," said Robert Kennedy III, a United States expert on the Russian space program, who is a consultant at the Ultimax Group Inc., in Oak Ridge, Tenn. "We have some good technical data and we're trying to compare it to known Russian materials."
Space experts believe that more than 20 tons of material from Mir could have survived re-entry temperatures of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit.
Whatever their true origins, Mr. Wharton's foam souvenirs will for now join his collection at his home here in Palo Alto, which already includes a piece of solar panel from a United States communications satellite that blew up on the launching pad in China and was recovered by American aerospace workers.