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Publication: THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS PubDate: 2/2/2003 Head: Initial suspicion falls on Columbias wing tiles Byline:

ED TIMMS Credit: Staff Writer Section: NEWS Edition: SECOND Page Number: 1A Word Count: 1643 It didnt seem like much at the time: As Columbia rumbled off the launching pad two weeks ago, a chunk of insulation apparently sloughed off the main fuel tank and struck the space shuttles left wing. But after Columbia broke apart Saturday, much of the speculation about what caused the tragedy focused on damage to the heat-absorbing tiles on that wing. NASA officials reported that heat sensors in the left wing began to fail just minutes before contact with the Columbia was lost. NASA shuttle project manager Ron Dittemore acknowledged Saturday that insulation had struck the wing during takeoff. As we look at that now in hindsight, we cant discount that there might be a connection, said Mr. Dittemore, speaking in Houston. But we have to caution that we cant rush to judgment, because a lot of things in this business that look like the smoking gun turn out not to be close. Still, the wing appeared to be the initial focus as at least three separate investigations were planned - one by NASA, one by an independent panel of government and military experts and one by a House committee. It will not be the first time that NASA has looked into problems caused by insulation falling onto the tiles, which can resist very high temperatures but are relatively brittle. In 1997, a NASA shuttle status report found that while investigations into the cause of Columbias unusual tile damage continue, managers hope the additional work will reduce the possibility of external tank foam debris contributing to Shuttle tile damage. An Air Force document in 1999 recounted that, according to NASA,

during several previous Space Shuttle flights, including the shuttle launched Nov. 29, 1998, the shuttle external tank experienced a significant loss of foam from the internal tank. The document went on to say that the damage was a concern because of the cost to replace tiles, not as a safety risk. A possible loss of foam insulation also was reported after a Columbia launch in 1993, and a loose patch was discovered and repaired before a 1991 launch. As the shuttle descended through the atmosphere at about 18 times the speed of sound on Saturday, extremely high temperatures built up on the leading edges of the shuttles wings. The tiles that may have been struck by the insulation when Columbia lifted off are designed to prevent heat damage. If you lost a significant number of tiles on one side, then that side could heat up, and the wing could break off, said Dr. Raymond Askew, director of Space Research Development at Texas A&M University. It would cause tumbling. Dr. Hans Mark, who was NASAs deputy administrator when Columbia became the first shuttle launched into space in 1981, said the shuttle depends on the surface insulation not to burn up when it comes back in. If the leading edge is damaged, he said, the substructure could melt, weaken the wing, and probably cause it to come off eventually. The loss of the critical heat-resistant tiles has been a recurring concern. On the first flight of that same shuttle, Columbia, I remember vividly ... there were a number of tiles missing from the engine pods on the back, and we worried about how they came off, recalled Dr. Mark, who teaches aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Columbias first mission was delayed because of difficulties designing working tiles. Last week, Leroy Cain, NASAs lead flight director at Mission Control, said that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing posed no safety hazard and that they were not planning to alter Columbias course to compensate.

[We] took a very thorough look at the situation with the tile on the left wing, and we have no concerns whatsoever, he said. We havent changed anything with respect to our trajectory design. Dr. Randall Chambers, a pioneering NASA aerospace engineer who is now a professor emeritus at Wichita State University, said that after Columbias launch, the crews ability to inspect potential damage would have been very limited. Even had they gone on a spacewalk, the astronauts lacked the equipment to fix the tiles. 2.5 million parts The initial focus was on heat tiles, but many factors were sure to be examined. To avoid overheating, the shuttle must re-enter the atmosphere at a precise angle. The flight path was being controlled by a computer, meaning a glitch is a possible factor in the crash, though NASA apparently has no indication of that. Shuttles are often touted as the most complex machines ever built. With more than 2.5 million parts, theres a lot that can go wrong. And while the shuttles main and maneuvering engines are off during landing, hydrazine fuel cells and other potentially explosive materials are still on board. At hypersonic speeds, anything that creates a breach in the shuttles heat shielding or changes the shuttles aerodynamics could be catastrophic - whether its caused by a fire, an explosion, or even a tiny meteor. A 1997 report by a committee of the National Research Council cautioned that space debris as small as a quarter-inch could result in a loss of air pressure in the crews cabin and that an object that punctures the shuttles wing could cause structural failure when the shuttle re-enters the atmosphere. NASA engineers recently detected and repaired fuel line cracks in the shuttle fleet, and wiring problems also have been found. In 1997, one of Columbias missions was cut short because of malfunctions in a fuel cell, which produces electricity. Some information about Columbias systems was transmitted before the shuttle broke up. Infrared detectors on military satellites reportedly picked up flashes as Columbia disintegrated, and radar installations recorded the images of the falling debris. In Texas

and Louisiana, federal officials are collecting wreckage for analysis. Much may be learned from the pattern of debris, although it was widespread, and much of it may have been destroyed. Investigating an accident like this is not unlike investigating an airplane accident, said retired Air Force Gen. Richard Hawley. Anything that blows up at 200,000 feet going warp 8 is different, but you pick up the pieces, analyze the communications, look at the pictures, try to figure out what happened. What came off the shuttle first, for example, may indicate where the problem began. If the left wing came off, Dr. Mark said, what would happen is that it would turn into the slipstream, and the aerodynamic forces ... would then tear it apart. Other clues also may have survived the long fall to Earth. Chemical residue might suggest the source of an explosion; molten metal, the presence of a prolonged or intense heat source. The analysis of the debris and its various components, especially chemical components, is extremely important, Dr. Chambers said. Some critics have raised questions about the safety of the aging spacecraft and point out that Columbia, on its 28th mission, was the oldest shuttle in the fleet. Although the original design life for these shuttles was on the order of 100 missions, its really hard to say when you dont have a lot of flight experience, said Dr. David Spencer, an expert on spacecraft design and aerospace engineering professor at Penn State University. But Dr. Spencer also pointed out that the shuttles are very heavily inspected after every mission and that Columbia underwent an exhaustive refurbishment that was completed in 1999. NASA also has been criticized for staffing problems in the shuttle program and in its safety oversight. A 2001 report by NASAs Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, for example, warned that identified safety improvements are being delayed or eliminated and that if an attempt is made to fly a

high-risk system such as the space shuttle ... with inadequate resources, risk will inevitably increase. Richard Blomberg, a former chairman of that panel, told Congress in April that the shuttle program was in danger. I have never been as worried for Space Shuttle safety as I am right now. All of my instincts suggest that the current approach is planting the seeds for future danger, he said. The concern is not for the present flight, or the next, or perhaps the one after that. In fact, one of the roots of my concern is that nobody will know for sure when the safety margin has been eroded too far. Mr. Blomberg suggested that budget cutbacks had spread NASA too thin. Under close watch Federal officials say that it was highly unlikely that Columbia was the victim of sabotage. Security was extraordinarily tight for both the launch and the landing because of the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and because Columbias crew included an Israeli astronaut, security was heightened further still. Even the exact time of Columbias launch was kept secret. Dr. Spencer worries that it may be difficult to piece together enough to draw firm conclusions about what happened and who was responsible. At that altitude and with that much friction, that much heat, there may not be a whole lot of stuff that survives to the ground, he said. Pieces of rockets enter the atmosphere all the time, he said, and its a rarity that people find pieces. Unlike with Columbia, he said, the Challenger disaster occurred at a relatively low altitude, so they were able to recover a lot ... to piece things together about what happened. Dr. John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said he doubts that the investigation will take as much time as the 26 months of investigation into the Challenger explosion. We know a lot more about the shuttle than we did in 1986, he said. Contributing to this report were Richard Whittle, Allen Pusey and

Mike Goldfein of the Belo Capital Bureau and staff writers Dave Tarrant and Katie Fairbank in Dallas. E-mail