Skip to comments.COLUMBIA'S WING DRAWS RENEWED ATTENTION
Posted on 02/02/2003 3:56:19 AM PST by Elkiejg
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Countless clues left investigators with few answers as they probed what caused the breakup of space shuttle Columbia after the deadly disaster spewed debris across hundreds of miles.
In addition to examining the wreckage, NASA was analyzing transmissions from the crew, records from the shuttle's sensors and data from military, government and commercial satellites.
"We will be poring over that data 24 hours a day for the foreseeable future," NASA shuttle project manager Ron Dittemore told a Houston news conference Saturday, hours after the tragedy.
The space agency put a hold on all shuttle launches until the cause of the accident involving the oldest ship in its fleet could be determined.
Investigators quickly focused on the possibility that Columbia's thermal tiles were damaged far more seriously than NASA realized by a piece of debris during liftoff.
Just a little over a minute into Columbia's launch on Jan. 16, a chunk of insulating foam peeled away from the external fuel tank and smacked into the left wing, which like the rest of the shuttle is covered with tiles to protect the ship from the extreme heat of re-entry into the atmosphere.
On Saturday, that same wing started exhibiting sensor failures and other problems 23 minutes before Columbia was scheduled to touch down. With just 16 minutes to go before landing, the shuttle disintegrated over Texas.
"As we look at that now in hindsight ... we can't discount that there might be a connection," Dittemore said. "But we have to caution you and ourselves that we can't rush to judgment on it because there are a lot of things in this business that look like the smoking gun but turn out not even to be close."
A day earlier, NASA had given assurances that its analyses showed the launch-day incident was absolutely no reason for concern.
For months, former NASA administrators had voiced concerns about the safety of the shuttle fleet. In April, Richard D. Blomberg, former chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's aerospace safety advisory panel, warned of danger ahead, saying, "I have never been as concerned for space shuttle safety as I am right now."
Blomberg said budget cuts kept the agency from adequately upgrading the aging shuttle fleet. Columbia was built in 1981.
Other officials insisted the program was safe, saying the shuttles receive regular upgrades and have a long life span.
Jose Garcia, a retired NASA technical assistant, said budget cuts throughout the 1990s resulted in the elimination of many safety checks during launch preparations. He went public with his concerns, all the way to President Clinton, but said nothing changed.
"The managers always say, `It's safer than it's ever been. Safety first.' All those words come easy," Garcia said.
After Saturday's disaster, President Bush invoked his emergency powers to authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency to spend whatever federal funds are needed to help with debris recovery and otherwise pay expenses in Texas and Louisiana related to the incident.
Dittemore warned that determining the cause of the crash could be a formidable task. "Some evidence may have burned up during re-entry," he said. "Other evidence is just spread over such a wide territory that we may never find it."
Dittemore said the problem could have been caused by a structural failure of some sort, but did not elaborate. NASA said that until the problems with the wing were noticed, everything appeared to be performing fine.
Law enforcement authorities said there was no indication of terrorism; at an altitude of 39 miles, the shuttle was out of range of any surface-to-air missile, one senior government official said.
If the liftoff damage was to blame, Dittemore said there was nothing that the astronauts could have done in orbit to fix the damaged tiles.
"My thoughts are on seven families, children, spouses, extended family. My thoughts are on their grief," Dittemore said. And he added: "My thoughts are on what we missed, what I missed, to allow this to happen."
The shuttle has more than 20,000 black, white or gray thermal tiles that are made of a carbon composite or silica-glass fibers and are attached to the shuttle with silicone adhesive.
Loose, damaged or missing tiles can change the aerodynamics of the ship and allow heat to warp or melt the underlying aluminum airframe, causing nearby tiles to peel off in a chain reaction. If the tiles strip off in large numbers or in crucial spots, a spacecraft can overheat, break up and plunge to Earth in a shower of hot metal, much like Russia's Mir space station did in 2001.
In Columbia's case, the shuttle broke apart while being exposed to the maximum re-entry heat of 3,000 degrees on the leading edge of the wings, while traveling at 12,500 mph, or 18 times the speed of sound.
"I would say that the tiles are the No. 1 candidate" for causing the disaster, said Norm Carlson, a retired NASA test chief and former launch controller.
Dittemore said that even if the astronauts had gone out on an emergency spacewalk, there was no way a spacewalker could have safely checked under the wings, which bear the brunt of re-entry heat.
The shuttle was not equipped with its 50-foot robot arm because it was not needed during this research mission, and so the astronauts did not have the option of using the arm's cameras to get a look at the damage.
And even if they did find damage, "there's nothing that we can do about tile damage once we get to orbit," Dittemore said. "We can't minimize the heating to the point that it would somehow not require a tile."
It was the second time in just four months that a piece of fuel-tank foam came off during a shuttle liftoff. In October, Atlantis lost a piece of foam that ended up striking the aft skirt of one of its solid-fuel booster rockets. At the time, the damage was thought to be superficial.
Dittemore said this second occurrence "is certainly a signal to our team that something has changed."
The international space station has a manipulator arm. Why couldn't they just fly by the space station and have its manipulator arm position a camera to inspect for damage ?
These types of tragedies bring out all kinds of name calling and the temptation is to find a scapegoat. Decisions, good or bad, are made every day in ventures such as the space program. Implications of those decisions may not be felt for years, just as government economic or foreign affairs decisions take years to show their effects. Most effects are unforseen and unpredictable.
There will be a host of "I told you so" revelations, but I know from my own personal experience that most people who make these claims were simply "covering their butt" when the did "tell them so" without any real intention on their part to make things safer.
If you've ever worked in heavy industry, not a day goes by where somebody doesn't raise a stink about a safety concern. Sometimes they are justified. Sometimes they are playing political games to get a day of pay while sitting around doing nothing. Sometimes it's political posturing, like Hillary blasting Bush about the lack of real "Homeland Security" even though she knows full well that we cannot and should not become a police state to make everybody "safe" all the time. In short, the "I told you so" crowd needs to be listened to in some instances and filtered out in others. But in ventures like this one, danger is ever present and cannot be allowed to force the program into impotency.
While I do blame Clinton for the 9-11 events because of a systematic disregard for National Security, I cannot say that this is his fault.
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