April May June JulyAugust September
October November December
News stories from April, 2012
by Alan Boyle
April 19, 2012
senator-astronaut John Glenn
is surrounded by other space
veterans in front of the
space shuttle Discovery
during its handover to the
Smithsonian at the Udvar-Hazy
Center in Chantilly, Va., on
Thursday. Glenn says the
shuttles were "prematurely
grounded" but accepts the
shuttle program's end.
to the Smithsonian's
National Air and
Space Museum has
about the end of the
shuttle program. Why
did they have to be
retired? The short
answer is that in
the wake of the 2003
that once the job of
finished, it would
just be too risky
and expensive to
keep the shuttles
astronauts think the
shuttles should have
been kept around a
while longer —
NASA will be
dependent on the
Russians for rides
to the space station
next three to five
decision eight and a
half years ago to
shuttle program, in
John Glenn said
handover ceremony at
the museum's Steven
F. Udvar-Hazy Center
astronaut who rode
on Discovery, Tom
during an interview
"I'm reliving the
the shuttles are
retiring without a
rapid successor," he
wishes that the
White House and
Congress had revved
up NASA's plan for
capable of going to
the space station
and beyond: the
initially aimed to
put U.S. astronauts
back on the moon by
Constellation was so
challenged that the
Obama White House
scrubbed the program
elements of it into
the current plan to
visit an asteroid by
dropped the ball on
this," Jones said.
"If we just went
from 0.5 percent of
the federal budget
to 0.6 percent, this
would all be a
benefit of retaining
an American system
for resupplying the
space station is
Glenn's call to keep
the shuttles flying.
Glenn made his pitch
to the White House
in 2010 — but Obama
didn't go for it,
and the former
told me today that
he accepts the
need crying over
what happened in the
past," Glenn said.
"Let's get on with
'Hubble Hugger' and
Grunsfeld thinks the
White House made the
right call, at least
on the question of
best-known for his
role as a
missions in 1999,
2002 and 2009.
During that last
was the one who bade
the Hubble Space
Now he's NASA's
science. The way
Grunsfeld sees it,
keeping the shuttles
flying might have
led to another
disaster like the
explosion — or the
loss of Columbia and
its seven STS-107
crew members in
possibility we could
have flown them for
a little bit longer,
or extended them at
Grunsfeld told me.
that we are rolling
Discovery into the
Air and Space
Museum, and not
burying its parts.
We flew out the
We didn't lose
another one. It
would have been
tragic. The fact is
that the space
shuttle program was
ended with dignity —
it was an amazing
I'm just thankful
he shared what he
called a "small,
this morning, on my
flight suit for the
first time since the
loss of Columbia, I
took my STS-107 pin
off. I felt like
this was an apt
celebration, that we
flew out the program
Columbia, and that
affected me very
said. "Now that we
are where we are,
I'm looking forward
to getting the next
end ... and the
Eileen Collins, who
became NASA's first
woman shuttle pilot
during a 1995
mission on Discovery
and went on to
missions in 1999 and
2005, has some
about the risks
flying the shuttles.
2005 mission on
NASA's "return to
flight" after the
She and most other
people at NASA had
thought they had
solved the foam-loss
problem that led to
the Columbia's doom
— but mission
shocked to see that
the fuel tank shed a
substantial piece of
significant harm was
done, but it took
another year for
NASA engineers to
rework the problem
Today, Collins noted
that each shuttles
designed to fly for
100 missions or 10
Discovery, the most
traveled of the
shuttles, flew 39
missions ... over
the course of 28
years. She recalled
that she agreed with
retirement plan that
was announced in
2004, but was
Program was canceled
that time, I would
say yes, we should
keep the shuttles
flying — with one
Back in 2006, we at
NASA made major
decisions to start
shutting down the
pipeline for parts.
In 2010, to reverse
the decision and
continue flying the
shuttles was going
to be very expensive
and take a very long
time. So it wasn't
realistic to fly
them again," she
worst thing we can
do to our people is
to constantly change
things ... so in the
end, the right thing
to do was to fly out
shuttle. I am
personally very sad
to see it go. But
the big problem is,
we don't have
anything to follow
on right now. We're
going to get there.
It's just that right
now, we don't have
not the end of the
shuttle program that
Rather, it's the
NASA won't be able
to follow through on
the beginning of the
don't want to see
any more canceled
programs," she told
group after today's
ceremony. "If we
have problems, we
need to fix those
problems and press
on. We can't just
cancel and walk away
from them. I go to
schools, and I talk
to kids, and I say,
'If you have
problems, stick with
it, fix it, don't
give up.' We don't
want to continue to
give up on programs
that are going to be
taking us out into
space, whether it's
with robots or with
people. We need to
keep working on
do you think? Here's
your chance to weigh
in on the end of the
shuttle program and
the beginning of the
next chapter in
leave a comment
atop jumbo jet
for its last
Orbiter set for
7:36:21 PM ET
Discovery to the
Aircraft in the
Device at the
NASA mounted the space shuttle
Discovery on a jumbo jet on
Sunday in preparation for the
retired orbiter's delivery to
the Smithsonian. The paired air-
and spacecraft are expected to
fly out of Florida for Virginia
on Tuesday morning, weather
Discovery's mating to the
Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, or
SCA, NASA's modified Boeing 747
jetliner, came a day later than
the space agency had planned. On
wind gusts at the
Landing Facility set the
Discovery swaying under its lift
sling, posing a risk that it
could impact the Mate-Demate
Device, the gantrylike steel
structure used to hoist the
shuttle onto the jetliner.
reconvened at 5 a.m. ET Sunday to finish retracting
the shuttle's landing gear. They raised the orbiter
60 feet (18 meters) off the ground so that the
carrier aircraft could be positioned underneath.
Discovery was then lowered onto the jumbo jet's
three protruding attach points to achieve a "soft"
throughout the day Sunday to secure, or "hard-mate,"
Discovery to the 747 before removing the hoist sling
and backing the paired vehicles out of the MDD on
Monday morning. [How
Space Shuttles Fly on 747 Jets (Photos)]
Emotional ending "Assuming the weather is good, we'll back
out [of the Mate-Demate Device] in the morning. That
will give a whole day of opportunity for the media,
the public and for our employees to come out and get
a good view of Discovery's last time on top of a 747
here at Kennedy Space Center," said Stephanie
Stilson, flow director for the transition and
retirement for the space shuttle orbiters. [Gallery:
Discovery Mated to Jumbo Jet]
Among the space
program workers expected to come out and view
Discovery on Monday are the members of its 39th and
final spaceflight, the six astronauts who flew the
STS-133 mission in March 2011.
Stilson, who also led the ground processing for
Discovery's last 11 missions, seeing the shuttle
readied for one last ferry flight was eliciting
"It's hard not
to be happy, because we have achieved another one of
our goals," Stilson told CollectSpace.com. "That is
how we look at things. We have a job to do, and that
is to get
Discovery to the Smithsonian. So this is the
next step to get there. So we're very happy because
everything has gone well to get to this point.
"But then, when
I start to think about the fact that this is last
time to do this with Discovery, it is sad," she
continued. "It is not something that we want to have
as a last opportunity. But that's part of the job,
that is where
with the program and the way things are going.
"So I'm just
going to enjoy it, be happy and allow myself to
really see the team at their best. Even if this is
one of the last times we do it, at least they're
doing it to the best of their ability, very
professional, very dedicated, and who can't be happy
about that? It's a great experience," Stilson said.
Final ferry flight Discovery's mating with the Shuttle Carrier
Aircraft marked a final reunion for the
space shuttle and jumbo jet. The same aircraft
was used to first deliver Discovery to the Kennedy
Space Center on Nov. 9, 1983.
In the three
decades since, Discovery was paired with this
particular Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, NASA 905, for
14 out of its 18 ferry flights.
something we have done many times before," said
Stilson. "We have the same exact Mate-Demate Device
out in California at the Dryden Flight Research
Center, so if we landed out west, we would go
through the same process to get the orbiter that
landed out there back home to Kennedy. And then,
when we used to do maintenance periods out in
California, we would load up from here [in Florida]
and then ferry out to Palmdale."
cranes will take the place of the Mate-Demate Device
when the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft arrives with
Discovery at Washington Dulles International Airport
After a day
spent off-loading the orbiter, NASA and the
Smithsonian will hold an arrival ceremony on
Discovery will be rolled over to the National
Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center,
located adjacent to the airport in Chantilly, Va.
backflip before docking so
cameras can see any possible
STS-133 February 25, 2011
In this frame grab from
video taken from NASA
television, space shuttle
Discovery is seen moments
after docking at the
International Space Station,
its final visit before being
parked at a museum,
Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011.
CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space shuttle Discovery
arrived at the International Space Station on
Saturday, making its final visit before being parked
at a museum.
"What took you
guys so long?" asked the space station's commander,
should have come and gone last November, but was
grounded by fuel tank cracks. It blasted off
Thursday with just two seconds to spare after being
held up by a balky ground
"Yeah, I don't
know, we kind of waited until like the last two
seconds," said shuttle commander Steven Lindsey.
occurred 220 miles above Australia.
flying on its final voyage — will spend at least a
week at the orbiting outpost. It's carrying a
closet-style chamber full of supplies as well as the
first humanoid robot to fly in space.
compartment will be attached permanently to the
space station early next week.
there are 12 people aboard the joined spacecraft,
representing the United States, Russia and Italy.
And in a historic first, four of the five major
partners have vessels docked there right now,
including cargo ships from Japan and Europe. The
entire conglomeration has a mass of 1.2 million
pounds, including the shuttle.
pulling in, Discovery performed a slow 360-degree
backflip so space station cameras could capture any
signs of launch damage. At least four pieces of
debris broke off the fuel tank during liftoff, and
one of the strips of insulating foam struck
do not believe the shuttle was damaged. That's
because the foam loss occurred so late in the
launch, preventing a hard impact. The hundreds of
digital pictures snapped by two space station
residents should confirm that; experts on the ground
will spend the next day or two poring over all the
The bottom of the Space
Shuttle Discovery is
pictured with the Earth in
the background as it
performs the rendezvous
pitch maneuver for
inspection of the orbiter's
thermal tiles, as
viewed from cameras aboard
the International Space
Station in this still image
taken from NASA TV, Feb. 26,
precaution, every shuttle crew since the 2003
Columbia disaster has had to thoroughly check for
possible damage to the thermal shielding, which must
be robust for re-entering Earth's atmosphere.
the first to perform the somersaulting maneuver,
back in 2005 — is the first in the fleet to be
retired this year. Endeavour and then Atlantis will
close out the 30-year shuttle program by midsummer.
the oldest of the three and the most traveled, with
143 million miles logged over 39 flights and 26
launched aboard Discovery — Robonaut 2 or R2 for
short — will remain at the space station, all boxed
up for at least another few months. It's an
experimental machine from the waist up that will be
tested before attempting simple jobs inside the
orbiting complex. The idea is for R2 to eventually
serve as an astronaut assistant.
Robonaut said in a Twitter update following
Saturday's docking. It actually was posted by a
colleague on the ground.
Discovery blasts off on its final
problems add last-minute drama to
space station mission
STS-133 February 24, 2011
The Associated Press
2/24/2011 9:25:19 PM ET
CANAVERAL, Fla. — Discovery, the world's most
traveled spaceship, thundered into orbit for the
final time Thursday, heading toward the
International Space Station on a journey that marks
the beginning of the end of the shuttle era.
astronauts on board, all experienced spacefliers,
were thrilled to be on their way after a delay of
nearly four months for fuel tank repairs. But it
puts Discovery on the cusp of retirement when it
returns in 11 days and eventually heads to a museum.
making one last reach for the stars," the Mission
Control commentator said once the shuttle cleared
the launch tower.
the oldest of NASA's three surviving space shuttles
and the first to be decommissioned this year. Two
missions remain, first by Atlantis and then
Endeavour, to end the 30-year program.
Discovery's 39th launch and the 133rd shuttle
several tense minutes just before liftoff when an
computer problem popped up and threatened to
halt everything. The issue was resolved and
Discovery blasted off three minutes late, with just
two seconds to spare.
"Great way to
go out," said launch director Mike Leinbach.
Launching late in the window like that "probably
makes it a little bit more sweet."
"I would say
we scripted it that way," added Mike Moses, chairman
of the mission management team, "but I could use a
little less heart palpitations in the final couple
seconds of the countdown."
As the final
minutes ticked away, commander Steven Lindsey
thanked everyone for the work in getting Discovery
"And for those
watching," he called out, "get ready to witness the
majesty and the power of Discovery as she lifts off
one final time."
high as the shuttle rocketed off its seaside pad
into a late afternoon clear blue sky, and arced out
over the Atlantic on its farewell flight. Discovery
will reach the space station Saturday, delivering a
small chamber full of supplies and an experimental
to having company here on ISS in a couple days,"
station commander Scott Kelly said in a
lab was soaring over the South Pacific when
Discovery took off.
cameras showed some pieces of foam insulation
breaking off the shuttle's external fuel tank four
minutes into the flight — more than usual in fact.
But it shouldn't pose any
safety concerns because it was late enough after
liftoff, officials said.
NASA is under
presidential direction to retire the shuttle fleet
this summer, let private companies take over trips
to orbit and focus on getting astronauts to
asteroids and Mars.
40,000 guests gathered at
Kennedy Space Center to witness history in the
making, including a small delegation from Congress
and Florida's new Gov. Rick Scott. Discovery frenzy
took over not only the launch site, but neighboring
to the launching site were jammed with cars parked
two and three deep; recreational vehicles snagged
prime viewing spots along the Banana River well
before dawn. Businesses and governments joined in,
their signs offering words of encouragement. "The
heavens await Discovery," a Cocoa Beach church
proclaimed. Groceries stocked up on extra red, white
and blue cakes with shuttle pictures. Stores ran out
of camera batteries.
team also got into the act. A competition was held
to craft the departing salutation from Launch
Control: "The final liftoff of Discovery, a tribute
to the dedication, hard work and pride of America's
space shuttle team." Kennedy's public affairs office
normally comes up with the parting line. Souvenir
photos of Discovery were set aside for
controllers in the firing room. Many posed for group
his crew paused to take in the significance of it
all, before boarding Discovery. They embraced in a
group hug at the base of the launch pad.
first try back in November, no hydrogen gas leaked
during Thursday's fueling.
NASA also was
confident no cracks would develop in the external
fuel tank; nothing serious was spotted during the
final checks at the pad. Both problems cropped up
during the initial countdown in early November, and
the repairs took almost four months. The cracks in
the midsection of the tank, which holds instruments
but no fuel, could have been dangerous.
postponement kept one of the original crew from
Timothy Kopra, the lead spacewalker, was hurt when
he wrecked his bicycle last month. Experienced
spacewalker Stephen Bowen stepped in and became the
first astronaut to fly back-to-back shuttle
missions. Kopra watched the liftoff back in Houston;
he'll help out in Mission Control during next week's
Discovery is Robonaut 2, or R2, set to become the
first humanoid robot in space. The experimental
machine — looking human from the waist up — will
remain boxed until after Discovery departs. Its twin
was at the launch site, perched atop a rover, waving
"I'm in space!
HELLO UNIVERSE!!!" R2 announced in a tweet sent by a
already has 143 million miles to its credit,
beginning with its first flight in 1984. By the time
this mission ends, the shuttle will have tacked on
another 4.5 million miles. And it will have spent
363 days in space and circled Earth 5,800 times when
it returns March 7.
spacecraft has been launched so many times.
list of achievements include delivering the Hubble
Space Telescope to orbit, carrying the first Russian
cosmonaut to launch on a U.S. spaceship,
performing the first rendezvous with the Russian
space station Mir with the first female shuttle
pilot in the cockpit, returning Mercury astronaut
John Glenn to orbit, and bringing shuttle flights
back to life after the Challenger and Columbia
expected to be eventually put on display by the
Astronauts climb into Discovery for
its final flight
After group hug, six crew
members get set for space station mission
STS-133 February 24, 2011
a group hug
Fla. — The shuttle Discovery's six crew members
gathered together for a group hug on the launch pad
Thursday, then prepared to blast off on the spaceship's
The trip to the launch pad came after
NASA finished pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons
of fuel into Discovery's external fuel tank. The crew
has been waiting to take on this mission to the
International Space Station since November, when fueling
problems forced a long delay for repairs.
Discovery is NASA's most traveled
space shuttle, putting in nearly three decades of
service. Now it's slated to become the first shuttle to
After the months
of delay, launch director Mike
Leinbach said everything finally
seemed to be coming together. Even
the weather was looking up: the
forecast improved to 90 percent "go"
for the 4:50 p.m. ET liftoff.
This time, no
hydrogen gas seeped out during
fueling. NASA also was confident no
cracks would develop in the external
fuel tank. Both problems cropped up
during the initial countdown in
November. The cracks in the
midsection of the tank, which holds
instruments but no fuel, could have
head to the International Space
Station with the crew, as well as a
load of supplies and a humanoid
This will be the
39th flight for Discovery, which has
logged 143 million miles (230
million kilometers) since its first
mission in 1984. After retirement,
the orbiter is expected to go on
display at the Smithsonian
Institution's Udvar-Hazy Center, an
annex of the National Air and Space
that 40,000 guests were on hand for
Discovery's farewell launch,
including a small contingent from
Congress. Watching with special
interest from Mission Control in
Houston is astronaut Timothy Kopra,
who was supposed to be the flight's
lead spacewalker. He was hurt in
a bicycle crash last month and was
replaced by Stephen Bowen, who will
become the first astronaut to fly
back-to-back shuttle missions.
The other crew
members include commander Steve
Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe, spacewalker
Benjamin Alvin Drew Jr. and mission
specialists Michael Barratt and
Nicole Stott. All six astronauts are
veterans. Stott and Barratt served
long-term stints on the space
station in 2009.
flock to watch launch
Well before dawn,
recreational vehicles already lined
nearby roads offering the best views
of liftoff. Signs outside businesses
offices in the neighboring towns
of Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach
offered words of encouragement. "The
heavens await Discovery," one church
proclaimed. Local grocery stores
stocked up on extra red, white and
blue cakes adorned with shuttle
pictures. Camera batteries flew off
that it would be "tough" to see
Discovery soar one last time. "What
will be most difficult will be on
landing day when we know that that's
the end of her mission completely,"
spend 11 days in orbit — on top of
the 352 days it's already spent
circling the planet — and will rack
up another 4.5 million miles (7.2
Its list of
achievements include delivering the
Hubble Space Telescope to orbit,
carrying the first Russian cosmonaut
to launch on a U.S. spaceship,
returning Mercury astronaut John
Glenn to orbit, and bringing shuttle
flights back to life after the
Challenger and Columbia accidents.
"She's been an
amazing machine," Leinbach said
Wednesday. "She's done everything
we've asked of her."
will deliver and install a
closetlike compartment full of space
station supplies. The Italian-made
module was named Leonardo, after the
Italian artist/inventor Leonardo da
Packed inside the
compartment is Robonaut 2, or R2,
set to become the first humanoid
robot in space. The experimental
machine — looking human from the
waist up — will remain boxed until
after Discovery departs.
Up at the space
station, meanwhile, the six-person
crew welcomed a European cargo ship
that was launched last week from
French Guiana. It docked
successfully just six hours before
Discovery's planned liftoff, keeping
the shuttle countdown on track.
"Busy day in
space," station commander Scott
Kelly noted in a Twitter tweet.
NASA is under
presidential direction to retire the
shuttle fleet this summer, let
private companies take over trips to
orbit and focus on getting
astronauts to asteroids and Mars.
There's been considerable
disagreement among lawmakers and the
space community on how best to
Discovery," retired space shuttle
program manager Wayne Hale said in a
Twitter update Thursday. "Prayers
safe flight and wisdom for
includes information from The
Associated Press and msnbc.com.
Copyright 2011 The Associated
Press. All rights reserved. This
material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or
A new atmospheric phenomenon was caught
on video by the crew of the space shuttle Columbia just
days before the shuttle broke apart, new findings
Astronauts relayed the video to NASA
in real-time during their 16-day flight. But the agency
did not release the full data to researchers until
several months after the mission's tragic end on 1
February 2003. All seven crewmembers were killed when
the shuttle exploded while re-entering the atmosphere.
Yoav Yair of the Open University in
Ra'anana, Israel, and colleagues spent more than a year
analysing the video, which was originally taken to study
atmospheric dust. But a single frame of the video -
representing just 33 milliseconds - shows a mysterious
reddish glow in the night sky on 20 January 2003.
"I'm not sure what we saw," says Yair.
"I just know it wasn't something we were used to seeing
- it was something extraordinary." The glow occurred
about 150 kilometres above the ocean near Madagascar and
does not appear to be linked with thunderstorms.
That contrasts sharply with other
ephemeral events at similar altitudes, which glimmer
into being when electrical current travels upward from
lightning clouds at altitudes of about 10 km. Called
sprites and elves, these events take the shape of
jellyfish, downward-pointing carrots, or doughnuts, and
tend to occur within a horizontal distance of 70 km from
Wrong type of lighting
The upper red line is the Earth's
horizon, with the last glow of sunset
visible to the left. The fleeting flash
of the TIGER, below the shuttle, is
circled (Image: MEIDEX Science
But the closest lighting picked up by
the shuttle's video camera was 800 kilometres away from
the unexplained glow, which has been dubbed a TIGER
(Transient Ionospheric Glow Emission in
sprites and elves emerge within a few milliseconds of
the nearest lightning strike, but the TIGER took 250
milliseconds to leap into view after this lightning
struck, suggesting the two events were not linked.
Even a far-distant lightning storm is
unlikely to have caused the TIGER, says Yair. Some
theorists think that powerful lightning bolts may send
out beams of electrons that get shot to far-flung places
along Earth's magnetic field lines. In fact, a different
lightning bolt did strike at the right time around
Cyprus - the predicted starting point of a magnetic
"loop" that ends at Madagascar. But it was the wrong
type of strike, sending negative charge toward the
ground rather than the predicted positive charge.
Walter Petersen, a lightning expert at
the University of Alabama in Huntsville, US, who is not
part of the team, agrees that the new event appears
unrelated to lightning. "My next guess is some kind of
meteor - something coming down into the atmosphere from
above," he told New Scientist.
But Yair says the new observation does
not fit the profile of a meteor. Meteors cause the
atmosphere to glow more brightly than this event, and
they trace out long streaks that can be seen for
hundreds of milliseconds - much longer than the TIGER.
Even more new atmospheric "species"
may turn up with future observations from satellites or
the International Space Station, says Yair.
And he adds that the observation of
the TIGER adds to the scientific discoveries of the
mission, honouring the lives of the lost astronauts. "Of
course, it's no consolation. But it shows the astronauts
didn't die for nothing - some science was achieved," he
told New Scientist.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Office of Inspector General
Washington, D.C. 20546-0001
Reply to Attn of: W
March 16, 2004
TO: A/Special Assistant to the Administrator
M/Associate Administrator for Space Flight
O/Assistant Administrator for Institutional and Corporate Management
Q/Associate Administrator for Safety and Mission Assurance
FROM: W/Assistant Inspector General for Auditing
SUBJECT: Final Report on Internal Controls Over Columbia
Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) Costs (Report Number IG-04-013)
We conducted this audit to determine whether the Columbia
Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) established controls to ensure that 1)
expenditures were reasonable, necessary, and properly accounted for and 2)
goods and services were acquired in accordance with the Federal Acquisition
Regulation (FAR). As of September 30, 2003, CAIB costs, which were funded
through NASA's appropriation, totaled $16.9 million.
To accomplish our objectives we identified and assessed CAIB
processes for controlling expenditures and ensuring goods and services were
acquired in accordance with FAR. We also reviewed documentation supporting
procurement actions and other expenditures totaling $9.1 million.
We concluded that within 2 months of beginning operations, the
CAIB Executive Secretary for Management established effective processes for
controlling expenditures and ensuring contracts were in accordance with FAR.
Although our review of procurement actions and other expenditures led us to
question payments totaling $215,215 (2.4 percent of those reviewed), we
conclude that they occurred for unique reasons and did not represent systemic
weaknesses in controls. We are, however, recommending that NASA seek a
voluntary refund of $30,563 for an overpayment to the CAIB's primary support
The Executive Secretary's accomplishment in establishing and
implementing effective internal controls reflects positively on the quality
and commitment of the CAIB's support staff. This accomplishment is noteworthy
given that the CAIB was established on the day of the Columbia accident, and
it began its work without a pre-established framework for controlling its
financial and procurement activities. We believe that NASA can use the
experience of the CAIB support staff to improve its process for establishing
and conducting major mishap investigation boards. To that end, we are
recommending that NASA revise the Contingency Action Plan for Space Flight
Operations to include a framework for establishing a support staff and
ensuring that necessary financial and procurement controls are implemented
upon the initiation of a major mishap board. The enclosure contains details on
the scope, methodology, findings and recommendations of our audit. NASA
management has agreed to action that is responsive to our findings and
recommendations. We will follow up to determine if the actions have been
completed. If you have any questions please contact me at 358-2572.
[Original signed by]
David M. Cushing
Audit Report on Columbia Accident Investigation Board Financial and
B/Chief Financial Officer
M-2/Audit Liaison Representative
OJD/Director, Management Systems Division
LaRC/Branch Head, Supply and Simplified Acquisition Branch, Office of
JSC/BD5/Audit Liaison Representative KSC/QA-D/ Audit Liaison Representative
LaRC/R/Audit Liaison Representative
Columbia's Final Minutes
The second-by-second account of the shuttle's last minutes
By Michael Cabbage and William Harwood January 27, 2004
EDITOR'S NOTE: From "Comm Check ... The Final Flight of Shuttle
Columbia," by Michael Cabbage and William Harwood, which is being published
Tuesday by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. Cabbage is the space
editor of the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel; Harwood is a veteran space reporter for
CBS News. Printed by permission.
"The most complicated machine ever built got knocked out of the sky by a
pound and a half of foam. I don't know how any of us could have seen that
coming. The message that sends me is, we are walking the razor's edge. This is
a dangerous business and it does not take much to knock you off."
-- Flight director Paul Hill
Shuttle wings are made of aluminum, the upper and lower surfaces separated
by spars and trusses that form a boxlike internal framework. The main landing
gear wheel well boxes are located toward the front of each wing, nestled up
against the side of the orbiter's fuselage just behind the leading edge.
Behind its protective insulation, the front of a shuttle wing is flat, made
up of a panel of aluminum honeycomb material known as the leading edge spar.
To give the wing its aerodynamic shape, and to protect it from the most
extreme temperatures of re-entry, 22 reinforced-carbon carbon panels are
bolted side by side on that flat front surface, creating a smoothly curving
leading edge. So-called spanner beams, made out of a heat-resistant alloy
called Inconel, provide rigidity. To seal the gaps between RCC panels, thin
carbon-composite strips called T-seals are bolted in place to provide a smooth
surface along the entire leading edge.
During re-entry, the shuttle's nose is pitched up 40 degrees, which
subjects the lower halves of the RCC panels to the most extreme heating. The
fittings used to attach the RCC panels to the main spar are protected by
heat-resistant insulation that melts at 3,200 degrees.
Whatever happened to Columbia had utterly destroyed this complex system.
Twenty-seven truckloads of wreckage were hauled to Kennedy Space Center
between Feb. 5 and May 6. More than 25,000 searchers, who scoured a debris
"footprint" that was 645 miles long, found 84,900 individual pieces, about 38
percent of the space shuttle. Each piece or component was cleaned,
decontaminated, bar-coded, photographed and entered into a computer database.
Wreckage from Columbia's wings, fuselage, and nose section was laid out on a
grid in the Reusable Launch Vehicle Hangar near Kennedy's shuttle runway. The
most critical RCC panels and attachment fittings -- those numbered 1 through
13 and nearest the fuselage -- were mounted on a full-scale clear plastic
mockup of the rounded leading edge that allowed investigators to see each
piece in relationship to its neighbors. It also allowed them to map out
exactly where the heat went after it entered the leading edge.
The work at KSC was buttressed by analysis by Johnson Space Center
engineers of data from the orbiter's Modular Auxiliary Data System, or MADS,
recorder and amateur video images of Columbia's disintegration. The inch-wide
MADS tape contained information from 570 sensors; it was found by searchers in
Hemphill, Texas, on March 19, six weeks after Columbia disintegrated.
Ultimately, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was able to conclude,
without qualification, that the foam impact was the root cause of the
accident; that the impact had knocked a 6- to 10-inch hole in the lower half
of RCC panel 8 on the shuttle's left wing; and that a plume of super-heated
plasma entering through that breach had destroyed the wing and triggered the
destruction of the orbiter.
The team concluded the foam broke away from the left bipod ramp 81.7
seconds after liftoff and hit the underside of Columbia's left wing two-tenths
of a second later. The foam measured 21 to 27 inches long by 12 to 18 inches
wide. It was tumbling at 18 revolutions per second. Before the foam separated,
the shuttle -- and the foam -- had a velocity of 1,568 mph, about twice the
speed of sound. Because of its low density, the foam rapidly decelerated once
in the airstream, slowing by 550 mph in that two-tenths of a second. The foam
didn't fall on to the leading edge of the left wing as much as the shuttle ran
into it from below. The relative speed of the collision was more than 500 mph,
delivering more than a ton of force.
On July 7, investigators using a nitrogen-powered cannon fired a
1,200-cubic-inch block of foam weighing 1.67 pounds at RCC panel 8, taken from
the shuttle Atlantis. Traveling at 530 mph, the foam blew a ragged 16-inch
hole in the RCC panel, vividly demonstrating how much damage foam could do.
With the dramatic foam shot at RCC panel 8, all the pieces of the puzzle
were finally in place. There was little doubt about what had doomed Columbia
and its crew. A second-by-second time line of the final working scenario
provided a gripping account of the shuttle's final minutes.
At 8:44:09 a.m. Eastern time on Feb. 1, 2003, Columbia was a half-hour from
home. The shuttle had just dropped below an altitude of 76 miles, slipping
into the discernible atmosphere 900 miles northwest of Honolulu.
During re-entry, the shuttle compresses the thin air in front of it,
creating two shock waves. Those shock waves intersect around RCC panel 9,
subjecting panels in that area to the most extreme heating. But the
compression of the air in front of the shuttle forms a so-called boundary
layer, a region just a few inches thick that resists further compression and
acts as a natural insulator. A few inches away from the leading edge, just
beyond the boundary layer, molecules are torn apart and temperatures can
exceed 10,000 degrees. But the boundary layer keeps temperatures on the
leading edge RCC panels at around 3,000 degrees.
A smooth surface is essential for the boundary layer to form and is crucial
to a shuttle's survival during the plunge to Earth. If the boundary layer is
disturbed for any reason, its insulating effect can be compromised by
high-temperature turbulence, subjecting the shuttle's tiles and RCC panels to
much more heat than they were designed to handle.
But even as the Columbia astronauts chatted about the light show outside,
the hole in Columbia's left wing was disrupting that boundary layer. Ever more
air molecules were shooting into the inside of the wing at RCC panel 8 and
slamming into the insulation protecting the panel attachment fittings,
swirling through the cavity and spreading out to either side. At that
altitude, the effect was small. But the shuttle was descending, and the air
was getting thicker with each passing second. With Columbia in a 40-degree
nose-up orientation, the plume entering the breach in RCC panel 8 was aimed at
the upper attachment fittings and insulation. The insulation began melting,
and the front face of the left wing's aluminum honeycomb forward spar -- the
only barrier between the plume and the interior of the wing -- began heating
At 8:48:39 a.m., just four minutes and 30 seconds after Columbia had dipped
into the atmosphere, a sensor mounted behind the forward spar, near the point
where RCC panel 9 was bolted to the other side, measured an unusual increase
in stress. The spar was softening.
About a minute later -- five and a half minutes after entry interface --
the shuttle's flight computers ordered a turn to the right. Up until this
point, the shuttle had simply been falling into the atmosphere, wings level,
nose up and pointed straight ahead. Now, the ship's flight computers began
actively guiding the shuttle toward Kennedy's runway. The shuttle's nose
smoothly swung 80 degrees to the right.
Less than 20 seconds after the maneuver, sensors mounted on Columbia's left
rear rocket pod measured an unusual change in temperature. Wind tunnel testing
would later show some of the hot air blasting into the RCC cavity was exiting
through the vents on the upper surface of the wing, carrying thin clouds of
metallic vapor from melted insulation.
The firestorm inside the RCC cavity was rapidly increasing in intensity.
The boundary layer around the leading edge breach was severely disrupted, and
the flow of super-heated air over the lower surface of the wing exposed the
protective tiles there to much higher temperatures than they were designed to
withstand. Insulation and RCC panel support fittings behind the breach
continued to burn away.
Within a few seconds of 8:52:16 a.m. -- the exact time is unknown -- the
deadly plume burned its way through the forward wing spar and into the
interior of the wing.
The shuttle was still 300 miles from the coast of California. The crew
still had no idea anything was wrong.
But with the boundary layer disrupted, the temperature of the atoms and
molecules blasting into the wing probably exceeded 8,000 degrees near the
leading edge breach itself. Hot gas began flowing into the wheel well through
vents around landing gear door hinges. At 8:52:17 a.m., the first unusual
sensor reading flashed on a computer screen in mission control: a slight
increase in temperature in the hydraulic fluid running through a brake line
leading to the left main landing gear.
Columbia's left wing was burning up from the inside out. Twelve seconds
after the brake line temperature reading showed up in mission control, the
shuttle's flight computers noticed the effects of the damage for the first
time as a force, or drag, began pulling the shuttle's nose to the left. After
assessing the data for a few seconds, the computers sent commands to the wing
flaps, or elevons, on both wings to push the shuttle's nose slightly to the
right to balance it out.
On the flight deck, shuttle commander Rick Husband and rookie pilot William
"Willie" McCool remained oblivious to their ship's ongoing destruction. They
might have noticed the elevon movement on their forward computer displays, but
the adjustments were small and would not have caused concern.
Columbia finally crossed the coast of California north of San Francisco at
8:53:28 a.m. at an altitude of 45 miles and a velocity of 15,800 mph. By then,
the orbiter was in severe distress.
Scores of amateur shuttle watchers in California and Nevada had gotten up
before dawn to watch Columbia's fiery descent. Even first-time observers were
struck by the appearance of the shuttle's plasma trail. The super-heated air
left in the shuttle's wake glowed in the dark sky like a phosphorescent
The plume shooting into the wing from the front spar breach may have burned
a hole through the upper skin of the wing during this period, perhaps at the
same time that many observers on the ground saw a bright flash.
By 8:54 a.m., just 32 seconds after Columbia had crossed the coast -- and
just a minute and 44 seconds after the forward spar had been breached -- the
outboard wall of the left main landing gear wheel well began melting. A scant
11 seconds after that, the shuttle's flight computers detected another change
in the way Columbia's flight path was being affected.
It was as if the left wing had suddenly gained additional lift. The flight
computers instantly responded, adjusting Columbia's elevons yet again to
exactly counteract the two unwanted motions.
The shuttle stayed on course. Husband and McCool may have noticed the
elevon movements as the autopilot responded, but again, they made no attempt
to contact mission control for an explanation. In all likelihood, they still
believed the entry was proceeding normally.
The increased lift initially puzzled investigators until they pieced
together the plume's path through the wing's interior. The melting of the
support spars and trusses just behind the forward spar caused the upper and
lower wing surfaces to lose their rigidity. The lower wing, which was directly
affected by the increasing pressure of the air, bowed inward, forming a
depression. It started out small, but as the seconds ticked by and the wing's
interior got even hotter, it grew alarmingly. Over the next five minutes, the
depression probably grew to some 20 feet in length and 4 feet in width, a
concave area more than 5 inches deep. Wind-tunnel testing and computer
simulations later showed such a depression could explain the reaction of
Columbia's flight computers.
In mission control, the first clear sign of a problem aboard Columbia was
the loss of data from sensors in the left wing's hydraulic system. The wires
leading to those sensors had been part of a cable bundle attached to the
outboard wall of the left landing gear wheel well.
As Columbia was crossing the border between California and Nevada, the
shuttle's attitude was down to 43.1 miles. But its velocity was still a
blistering 22.5 times the speed of sound. It was 8:54:25 a.m.
Observers on the ground saw or photographed more than 10 debris-shedding
events in the next few moments.
At 8:58:03 a.m., Columbia's flight computers detected a sharp change in the
aerodynamic forces acting on the shuttle as the depression in the lower
surface of the left wing presumably increased in size. At the same time, the
drag acting to pull the nose farther to the left continued to increase.
Approaching the Texas border, the flight computers again ordered the elevons
to counteract the unwanted forces. Several debris-shedding events, indicating
the wing was losing additional insulation and structure, were noticed by
Months later, Air Force Lt. Col. Pat Goodman, a CAIB investigator,
speculated the sudden change in the shuttle's flying characteristics was
caused by a major change in the wing's shape. "I believe you can make a case
... that the wing begins to collapse," Goodman said. But the crew still would
not have noticed any dramatic change.
They did, however, notice the loss of tire pressure data. The computers
triggered an alarm in the cockpit and displayed a message to alert Husband to
possible problems with the landing gear. This was the crew's first
notification of potential trouble. Husband called mission control, presumably
to report the message -- "And, uh, Hou ... " but his transmission was cut off.
Astronaut Charles Hobaugh, sitting to Cain's immediate right, radioed
Columbia to let Husband know the flight control team was aware of the alarm
and the lost tire data. He added, "And we did not copy your last" to let
Husband know he needed to repeat whatever he had been trying to say earlier.
By now, the drag and roll forces acting on Columbia were beginning to reach
the point where the elevons could no longer keep the shuttle properly
oriented. In seconds, they would reach the limit of their motion.
Husband, perhaps beginning to realize major problems were developing, heard
Hobaugh's call and tried to respond.
"Roger, uh, buh ... " It was 8:59:32 a.m. and Columbia was approaching
Dallas. Seconds earlier, data from the shuttle suddenly froze on the computer
screens in mission control. Down arrows or the letter S, for "static," had
appeared on the screens, indicating the numbers were no longer being updated.
As it turned out, data were, in fact, still flowing down from Columbia. The
signals were garbled, however, and the computers in mission control were
programmed not to display potentially corrupted information. Investigators
later would be able to extract some of the data. That information, combined
with readings stored in the MADS recorder, and analysis of recovered wreckage,
eventually allowed investigators to develop a rough time line of events
stretching another one minute and 50 seconds beyond Husband's final
For the astronauts, the final sequence was mercifully brief, but no doubt
The left wing had suffered so much damage by now that nothing could be done
to keep the nose pointed in the right direction. First two and then four
right-side rocket thrusters were automatically commanded to fire in a futile
bid to offset the forces pulling the nose to the left. A master alarm sounded
in the cockpit as the elevon control circuitry failed. Columbia's nose yawed
farther to the left, toward Earth, as the spacecraft began rolling to its
In all likelihood, all or part of the presumably collapsed wing suddenly
folded over and broke off. At 8:59:46 a.m., a large piece of debris was seen
separating from the shuttle. Columbia's backup flight system computer began
generating a string of fault messages. Two more large pieces of debris fell
away from the shuttle within two seconds of each other starting at 9:00:01
a.m. One of these may have been the shuttle's vertical tail fin ripping off in
the hypersonic airstream. The other could have been a large piece of the
left-side rocket pod. No one knows.
"Everything just wants to fall over at that point," Cain said. "Because
again, this is just like a barn door in wind. If that wing came off as we were
falling -- pitching down and falling over ... it is likely that the vehicle
then probably broke apart in mid-body area." But not immediately.
At 9:00:02 a.m., two seconds of relatively clean data reached the ground,
providing a snapshot of Columbia's condition at that moment.
Columbia's three hydraulic power units were still running, along with the
ship's three electrical generators. The main engine compartment was intact,
and the communications and navigation equipment in the crew module were
functioning normally. The shuttle's life support systems were operational. Air
pressure was stable, and the temperature was a comfortable 71.6 degrees.
But all three hydraulic power units had lost pressure, and the ship's
reservoirs of hydraulic fluid were empty. The shuttle's cooling system had
shut down. Multiple alarm messages intended to alert the crew to problems were
being generated by the computer system. Extreme temperatures were being
recorded by sensors on the belly of the orbiter and along the left side of the
fuselage. The electrical system was showing signs of multiple shorts.
As of 9:00:04 a.m., when the final two seconds of telemetry ended, the
fuselage was still intact, along with the right wing and the right rear rocket
pod. All or part of the left wing was gone. The condition of the vertical tail
fin was unknown.
Just before telemetry stopped, data from the backup flight system computer
indicated one of the two cockpit "joysticks," used to manually fly the
spacecraft on final approach to the runway, was moved beyond its normal
position. That's one way for a pilot to deactivate the autopilot. But
investigators do not believe Husband or McCool was attempting to take over
manual control. More likely, one of the pilots inadvertently bumped his hand
controller during those horrifying final few seconds. The shuttle's digital
autopilot remained engaged through the final loss of signal.
Finally, at 9:00:19 a.m., the fuselage began breaking apart. The shuttle
was 37 miles up and still traveling 18 times the speed of sound.
A study done for the CAIB concluded the shuttle's heavily reinforced crew
module and nose section broke away from the fuselage relatively intact,
separating at the bulkhead that marks the dividing line between the cargo bay
and the forward fuselage.
Challenger's crew module had also broken away in one piece when the shuttle
disintegrated during launch 17 years earlier. As with Challenger, the forces
acting on Columbia's crew during this period were not violent enough to cause
injury, and investigators believe the astronauts probably survived the initial
breakup of the orbiter.
Like Challenger's crew, the Columbia astronauts met their fates alone and
the details will never be known. Clark presumably was still videotaping on the
flight deck when the alarms began blaring and the shuttle yawed out of
control. But the outer portions of the tape -- the portions that might have
shown at least the initial moments of the shuttle's destruction -- were burned
Investigators concluded the module fell intact for 38 seconds after main
vehicle breakup, plunging 60,000 feet to an altitude of 26 miles before it
began to disintegrate from the combined effects of aerodynamic stress and
extreme temperatures. From the debris analysis, investigators believe the
module was probably destroyed over a 24-second period beginning at 9:00:58
a.m. During that period, the module fell another 35,000 feet, to an altitude
of 19 miles or so.
Investigators believe the module began breaking up at the beginning of that
window. If any of the astronauts were still alive at that point, death would
have been instantaneous, the result of blunt force trauma, including
hypersonic wind blast, and lack of oxygen. About 45 percent of the crew module
was recovered near Hemphill, Texas, including pieces of the forward and aft
main bulkheads, the frames from the forward cockpit windows, the crew airlock,
and all of the hatches. About three-quarters of the flight deck instrument
panels were found, along with 80 percent of the mid-deck floor panels and
numerous parts from the crew's seats and attached safety equipment. From an
analysis of pressure suit components and helmets, investigators concluded
three astronauts had not yet donned their gloves when breakup began and one
was not wearing his or her helmet. In the end, however, having sealed pressure
suits would have made no difference.
But investigators were struck by the way the crew modules of both
Challenger and Columbia broke away relatively intact. The survivability study
concluded relatively modest design changes might enable future crews to
survive long enough to bail out.
But Columbia's crew had no chance. The astronauts fell to Earth amid a
cloud of wreckage and debris.
One of the crew members came to rest beside a country road near Hemphill.
The remains were found by a 59-year-old chemical engineer and Vietnam veteran
named Roger Coday, who called the sheriff and then watched from the porch of
his mobile home as a funeral director drove by to collect them.
"The astronauts have always been my heroes," said Coday, who that afternoon
fashioned a cross out of two cedar logs he had cut earlier and erected it at
the place where the astronaut had fallen to Earth.
"It's there and we still maintain it," he said eight months after the
disaster, still wondering who the astronaut was. "I am a very devout
Christian, and I prayed for that person's soul."
HOUSTON (AP) — Sections of a diary belonging to one of the seven
astronauts killed last year when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart over
Texas were found a few months ago and returned to his family, according to a
Ramon was one of the seven astronauts lost on Columbia on February 1,
The Jerusalem Post reported that sections of Israeli
astronaut Ilan Ramon's diary were found in a Texas field with other debris.
The diary was submitted to the Israel Police for help
in deciphering what was written, since the pages were written in Hebrew and
some of the pages were full of holes, the newspaper reported.
Johnson Space Center spokesman James Hartsfield
confirmed on Friday that any personal items found among the debris were
returned to the astronauts' families.
"Out of respect for the privacy of the families we
will not identify those items," he said.
A woman who answered the phone Friday at the Houston
home of Ramon's widow said Rona Ramon didn't want to comment.
Columbia broke apart as it re-entered Earth's
atmosphere on Feb. 1 after searing gases penetrated a gash in a wing. NASA
doesn't expect to launch another shuttle until next fall at the earliest.
Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All
rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast,
rewritten or redistributed.
BUTTERFLY ON A BULLET Exhuming Columbia, one piece at a time Early investigators had to rely on informed guesswork. But clues were puring
December 23, 2003
By Robert Lee Hotz, Times Staff Writer
By the Milk River on the Fort
Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, Chauncy Birdtail woke up the day
Columbia crashed the way he did most mornings — worried.
As a part-time firefighter, Birdtail,
26, spent too many weeks in smoldering mountain wastes far from his wife and
Like many members of the Gros Ventre
and Assiniboine tribes, he struggled for steady work. To make ends meet, he had
a part-time job filling in for an elementary school janitor.
Now his wife was pregnant again. He
also faced an overdue drunk-driving fine and had no idea how to earn the $900 to
pay it off.
The space shuttle was the furthest
thing from his mind.
Then the U.S. Forest Service put out
a call for firefighters to join the search for debris.
Birdtail hesitated. If he stayed
behind, there was still a chance he could make his janitor's job into something
On the other hand, he needed that
$900. The Forest Service was paying $11.64 an hour. There was no way he could
earn that kind of money at home.
Birdtail said goodbye to his family
one more time and, like thousands of others, joined the search for Columbia.
Investigators were anxious to find
recorders, cameras and computers, anything with a memory, especially the craft's
most precious electronic repository — its flight data recorder.
The FBI, the National Guard, the
Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Transportation Safety Board
all joined NASA at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., within hours
of the accident, then fanned into counties in East Texas and Louisiana.
Searchers slashed through lowland
thickets of 2-inch thorns, hoping luck would lead them to anything that could
further the investigation.
One morning, NASA recovery operations
chief David Whittle looked up from his desk at Barksdale and realized that 5,600
people were under his authority for the day, searching for wreckage in an area
almost the size of Connecticut.
To quicken the recovery of debris,
Whittle pressed into service two satellites, a U-2 surveillance aircraft, 37
helicopters and seven other airplanes. He tried to hire a blimp. He quickly
learned that the debris was too small to be seen from the air, the vegetation
People had to search on foot.
Chauncy Birdtail and other recruits
walked in rows 10 feet apart. They shook debris from trees, tore it free of
thorn thickets. They dug it up from golf courses, swept it from schoolyards and
pried it off the windshields of cars.
At the murky bottom of Toledo Bend
Lake, along the border between Texas and Louisiana, 60 divers felt among the
submerged tree stumps. They made more than 3,300 dives. They found no debris.
When searchers came across a
fragment, they marked its position with a flag.
"You got to holler out when you find
what you think is a shuttle piece," Birdtail said.
They noted the location of each
possible specimen of human flesh with a pink ribbon.
Every new find was logged with its
GPS coordinates. Searchers tested all pieces for toxic chemicals and fumes, then
sealed them in plastic sandwich bags at the rate of 1,000 pieces a day.
In three weeks of searching, Birdtail
had found a shuttle circuit board, a gasket seal, a scrap of insulation and a
piece of the fuselage the size of a storm door.
After a 12-hour day in the field, he
and his crew would return to their camp tents. In the evening, NASA workers
showed them videos about the space shuttle or handed out bumper stickers and
When days passed without an
additional discovery, the contract firefighter got depressed.
"You push and push. I was really in
the downs because I didn't have no finds," Birdtail said. "The copperheads would
chase you. You see a water moccasin every day. I was just wanting to go home."
One evening, an astronaut came by to
talk with the firefighters about the life in the sky.
Birdtail had a question for the first
astronaut he had ever seen: How much do you get paid?
The astronaut instead pointed out a
moving spark in the sky.
"I will show you Alpha," she said. It
was the International Space Station passing overhead.
"It looked like a big, bright old
star," Birdtail said, "but it was moving so fast, not like a comet or nothing,
but at its own little speed. That was cool."
The men and women in the blue flight
suits seemed to materialize from the debris itself.
Whittle had not expected NASA
astronauts themselves to commandeer the search for human remains.
"I'm not sure who gave them authority
to do that," Whittle said. "It wasn't according to plan…. The crew like to take
care of their own."
When a crucial piece of wreckage was
discovered, an astronaut frequently would ferry it personally to a laboratory
for analysis, as if no one else could be trusted with its care.
In time, every major technical
meeting or public hearing had one or more astronauts in attendance. They seemed
to offer themselves as living reminders of what had been lost and, perhaps, in
atonement for survivor's guilt.
As indentured servants of
spaceflight, NASA's astronauts were both powerful and powerless.
The lives at stake were theirs, and
they risked them willingly. But if they raised too many questions, they risked
losing their only chance to fly in space, or possibly killing the shuttle
Adding to the pressure, the space
agency routinely hired and trained far more astronauts than could ever be
accommodated on scheduled shuttle flights, the agency's inspector general
reported earlier this year.
Consequently, astronauts now waited
years longer than their predecessors for a shuttle flight. In the interim, they
trained, handled engineering jobs and performed public relations functions.
In public, they were careful to
display all the scripted spontaneity of Disneyland tour guides. About five a
During the recovery operation, the
astronauts took charge of everything the Columbia crew had touched, worn or used
during the mission, including the twisted wreckage of the compartment that had
They sequestered the crew module
wreckage in a locked corner of the reconstruction hangar at the Kennedy Space
Center in Florida.
Most accident investigators were
refused access. Computer files containing information about the module were
encrypted. Photographs of the wreckage were locked away or kept on secure
In all, searchers recovered about
half of the crew module, according to the agency's internal reports.
It had been ripped apart by
aerodynamic stress over about a half a minute — "tormented," one investigator
NASA launched an internal
investigation of the crew wreckage and, for a time, kept it secret from everyone
else involved in the reconstruction effort and the independent accident
No one would say whether the special
handling of crew-related debris was driven by a sense of delicacy or shame.
Lacking comprehensive data from
Columbia's onboard electronics, NASA accident investigators in February and
early March had to rely on engineering intuition and technical analysis —
Investigators were intrigued by a
blurred image of the shuttle taken by two off-duty Air Force officers at the
Starfire Optical Range in Albuquerque.
A volunteer — Julian Christou, a
research specialist at the Center for Adaptive Optics at UC Santa Cruz —
sharpened the picture through days of intensive computerized image enhancement,
using techniques developed to clarify images of distant galaxies.
Even with his best efforts, the image
of Columbia remained a smudge, but it revealed signs of an unusual disturbance
around the leading edge of the left wing. It could have been caused by a crack,
a dent or a tear in its skin.
Engineers at NASA's Langley Research
Center looked at the data and wondered how that could match the only clues they
had to work with: Columbia's last seconds of telemetry signals transmitted to
Mission Control in Houston.
The signals showed four failing
sensors in the wheel well and abnormal temperature readings from two sensors
along the back of the left fuselage.
What damage near the front of the
craft would cause a flow pattern that would affect temperatures at the rear?
"Whatever that damage was, it was
moving the flow field around," said aerodynamics expert Bill Scallion, who has
been with NASA since it was founded. "You get a tremendous amount of heating
when you come in at 25,000 feet a second."
They tested their ideas with scale
models of the shuttle in Langley's hypersonic wind tunnels among the groves of
pin oak and pine outside Hampton, Va.
A team led by Thomas Horvath, an
expert in aero-heating and hypersonic flight, used a ceramic model constructed
for the Challenger investigation 17 years before.
The model was coated with a
temperature-sensitive phosphor that glowed in different hues when heated. By
tracing the shifting bands of color, they could map the heat enveloping the
They quickly made 70 such models.
To simulate a damaged tile, they cut
out a tiny piece of tape and, using tweezers and a magnifying glass, fastened it
to the model wing.
They put the tape in a different spot
along the leading edge of the left wing on each model.
To imitate the effect of a damaged
wheel well, they also poked a tiny dimple in the wing.
For two weeks, they tested their 70
creations at up to 18 times the speed of sound, using infrared cameras to reveal
the flowing currents of heat.
They discovered that by positioning
the tape near the middle of the wing's front edge, they could divert the thermal
currents across the fuselage in a way that mimicked the sensor readings.
The accident had revealed a secret.
Homesick and scared, Chauncy Birdtail
was running from a water moccasin when he saw a black box 20 feet away,
cushioned in the damp carpet of pine needles.
He caught his breath.
"I thought it might be a microwave or
a piece of a refrigerator," Birdtail recalled, "but it was the wrong color. I
was so excited it brought me out of the snake shivers."
He scrambled toward it.
It was about an hour after lunch,
about seven miles from Hemphill, Texas, 46 days after the accident.
Weighed down by search gear, Birdtail
found it hard to move quickly. He had on a hard hat, goggles, a red backpack, a
yellow Nomex shirt and green Nomex pants layered over by chain-saw chaps
designed to blunt the briars.
Birdtail had seen nothing like this
before. He was afraid to touch it.
The 58-pound black case was about the
size of two videocassette recorders. Its top had cracked. He could see circuit
boards and loops of magnetic tape.
His crew mates saw it and started
When the NASA supervisor showed up
and located its serial number, he immediately radioed headquarters at Barksdale.
Birdtail had found the flight data
recorder — the piece of wreckage at the top of NASA's search list.
The 22-year-old instrument, known
officially as the Orbiter Experiment recorder, held all the information from the
shuttle's sensors, readings on the ship's temperatures, pressures and other data
during ascent and reentry.
All of that data spooled onto 9,200
feet of 1-inch tape on two reels the size of medium pizzas.
The recorder had been housed under a
crew seat, its data to be downloaded only after landing.
"Our jaws dropped when we saw it,"
said John Hunt, a senior avionics expert at the United Space Alliance, which
runs shuttle operations for NASA.
Inside the case, the tape had unwound
in a tangle around the capstans and twisted against the recording heads. The
impact had nicked and pinched it into a hundred folds, then stretched it into a
All of it was waterlogged.
An astronaut flew the box to Houston
for inspection and then to Minnesota for cleaning and repair.
It was the most direct memory of the
shuttle's last flight that investigators would find.
"There it was," Birdtail said, "some
answers, anyway, for the astronauts … what happened to them while they was
"My tear things on my eyes started
juicing. I was thinking these space people probably need to find out how they
died. I was feeling all that for them."
Shuttles Will Return to Flight
Upgraded With Added Technology
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- When the next space
shuttle lifts off, perhaps as early as September, an upgraded model of the
decades-old spaceship will be doing the flying.
Packed full of additional
technology intended to make the astronauts safer, most of the improvements
won't be obvious when you watch the launch on television.
"The space shuttle won't look
any different than what you remember it from the last time it flew," said
- websites) spokesman Kyle Herring.
"It's like if you have work
done on your car's engine. Your car won't look any different. But if you open
the hood, all of a sudden you will see some changes," Herring said.
Those changes will be included as
the direct result of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's final report,
released in August, which detailed 15 recommendations NASA must do before
resuming shuttle flights. Another 14 must be adopted as soon as possible.
A recent analysis showed that the
changes will cost NASA an additional $280 million.
Chief among those: incorporating
the ability to detect damage to the shuttle's heat protection system of tiles
and reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) material and then repair that damage while
still in space.
Another major task: redesigning
the shuttle's external tank so large chunks of insulating foam won't fall and
threaten the shuttle's heat shield in the manner that led to the Columbia
tragedy in February.
A chunk of insulating foam fell
from Columbia's external tank and struck the left wing during its Jan. 16
launch, breaking open a hole that allowed hot gases to enter the wing during
re-entry on Feb. 1, triggering the disaster.
And while the CAIB report cited
many cultural issues within NASA management as contributing to the tragedy,
it's the technical fixes that will be more quickly introduced to the shuttle
"The Administrator's minced
no words that we will respond to and meet every recommendation of the CAIB
report," Herring said. "There is some flexibility there in how you
meet them, but they will be met before we fly."
Expect these changes to the shuttle system when
Atlantis or Discovery flies the STS-114 mission to the International Space
- websites) in late 2004:
Leading Edge Sensors
Although not a requirement for
return to flight, officials are planning to add some two dozen sensors to the
area behind the shuttle's wing leading edges.
The sensors will be able to detect
the force -- no matter how small or large -- of any object striking the wing
during the mission and radio that information to Mission Control as it
"That will provide basically
near real-time data to tell us if anything has hit the orbiter," Herring
If a sensor picks up a hit of some
kind then mission managers will be able to tell the astronauts where to look
to survey any possible damage to the RCC composite material that protects the
wing and the shuttle's nose from the hottest temperatures of re-entry.
Officials hope that the sensor system can be proven
reliable enough that the need to do in-space inspections with cameras and
lasers won't be required some day -- saving valuable time on the flight plan
and weight for other cargo.
The sensors are not new technology, and similar
devices have been flown in space before, but this would be the first time the
instrumentation will be used in this location.
"That's all being developed and although it's
not a requirement for return to flight, we really are optimistic it's going to
be there," Herring said.
Mission managers wanting to see any damage inflicted
on the shuttle's heat shield during launch will be aided by a set of
rocketcams that will be bolted to the external tank and pointed at key areas
of the spaceplane.
"Essentially they'll be able to show us a more
close up and personal view of the orbiter from the outside that we ever had
before," Herring said.
Rocketcams have become increasingly popular during
the past couple of years, beaming down live views of a launch from the
perspective of the rocket. More common on unmanned launchers, a single
rocketcam was employed during an October 2002 shuttle mission.
A rear-facing camera on the tank of a shuttle
Atlantis launch provided a dramatic and unprecedented view of the 18-story
vehicle climbing toward space. The only hiccup came at solid rocket booster
separation when the camera lens was obscured by exhaust from the motors that
push the boosters away.
Officials plan to change the rocketcam locations to
avoid repeating that problem, which has serendipitously provided a better view
of the shuttle, Herring said.
Although still a small change, the replacement of
insulating foam with heaters on the shuttle's external tank will provide a
visual clue to the keenest of observers that something is different.
Known as the "bipod ramp" area, the
original block of hand-shaved insulating foam meant to prevent ice buildup at
that location will be replaced by electric heaters. It was a chunk of foam
from this ramp that triggered the Columbia tragedy.
While the hardware design is approved, engineers
have yet to fully study how the fix will change the aerodynamics of the tank
Officials say they don't have any worries, but have
decided to take the time and effort of building a new scale model of the
shuttle for conducting wind tunnel tests early next summer.
The same effort was done during the 1970s, and
although the model used then was retrieved from storage and dusted off,
engineers chose to construct a new model that more faithfully represented the
"It was proven that that approach was very
successful in modeling aerodynamic flows, thermal, all of the aspects of an
ascent profile," Herring said.
Once finalized and completely approved, the design will be incorporated on
all future tanks. Several tanks that now are in storage in the Vehicle
Assembly Building eventually will be refurbished and modified with the same
The ability to inspect in space almost every square
inch of the shuttle will be made possible with the use of a 50-foot-long
extension, or boom, to the shuttle's robot arm.
"It's two segments of a robot arm that are
spares that are being connected together, and then a high-tech laser sensor
package and camera will be located on the end to basically allow our visual
reach to become twice what it is now with the shuttle's robot arm,"
Getting the boom and laser/camera package, along
with the required software, to work together as a system has been something of
a challenge. But tests have progressed far enough to prove the sensor package
will be able to detect damage.
Herring said this is another example of taking
proven technology and finding a new use for it, rather than having to develop
or invent some new gadget that could be more costly or add time to the return
to flight process.
How ever the discovery of damage to a shuttle's heat
shield is made -- by wing sensor, rocketcam or in-flight inspection --
astronauts on all future missions will be equipped with a repair kit that will
allow them to take a spacewalk and solve the problem.
Officials so far have the repair of missing or
damaged heat protection tiles fairly well in hand. The process of applying the
material works well and has been proven in training runs on aircraft flights
that create brief moments of weightlessness.
Herring said the materials have been selected and
several companies could be selected as the source -- a decision that is
expected to be made in January.
Tougher still is figuring out how to repair the RCC
panels that make up the wing leading edge. The composite material is
handcrafted, takes months to manufacture and must be shaped for the specific
area of the wing it's being used on.
Several promising options are being looked at, and
the expectation is that an RCC repair kit will soon be available, Herring
But it's not available yet.
The total time remaining before the shuttle flies
again could wind up depending on when the RCC repair kit is available.
CANAVERAL -- A team of outside experts is investigating whether NASA's
inspection program is good enough to make sure the shuttles and external fuel
tanks are safe.
safety reviews at Kennedy Space Center and the Louisiana tank factory were not
among the changes demanded by the board that investigated the Feb. 1 Columbia
of the board's 13 members, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, urged the
studies because he felt the Columbia report did not go far enough to prevent
Monday, NASA released a new version of its plan to get the shuttles back to
space. The update outlines dozens of extra actions the agency is taking.
also estimates NASA will spend at least $280 million in 2003 and 2004 to make
the changes ordered by the board. That's the first price cited for shuttle
reforms, from fixing the fuel tank foam that doomed Columbia to creating a new
safety and engineering center.
officials said the estimates, shown to members of Congress on Friday, were
preliminary and do not include the cost of several important and potentially
expensive fixes. The estimate is not a request to increase the $3.8
billion-per-year shuttle budget.
of flying, we're doing research and development to get back to flying,"
NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said. "This is the first jab at estimating the
cost of all of that."
updated return-to-flight plan focuses heavily on activities at Kennedy Space
Center, notably the quality control and inspections done while workers ready the
shuttles for launch.
from interviews with more than 200 shuttle workers, the accident board made
"observations" about the number and quality of inspections NASA does
to double-check work by contractors such as United Space Alliance.
went further. He wrote an add-on chapter to the board's report. In it, he argued
the board should have mandated tougher pre-flight inspections before the next
launch instead of just noting the concern as an "observation." Deal
said the issues he raised needed extra attention to "prevent the next
accident from occurring."
responded by assembling experts from the Defense Department, Federal Aviation
Administration and private companies to do a "top-to-bottom" review of
the inspections process. The group has finished its inquiry and will make
recommendations to shuttle managers later this year. NASA did not release
details of the team's findings or recommendations.
NASA temporarily made it harder to remove items from the list of components and
procedures that must be checked by agency inspectors prior to launch. The number
of such "government mandatory inspection points" plummeted over the
years as NASA handed over more control of shuttle work to its contractors.
report made similar recommendations about quality control and inspections at the
New Orleans-area plant where the external tanks are built by Lockheed Martin
could not be reached Monday for comment about the NASA plan.
specific shuttle system failures that could lead to catastrophe were addressed
too, even though they did not cause the Columbia accident. They are:
rings that connect the two solid rocket boosters to the 15-story orange fuel
tank might lack the strength to do the job. NASA promised to do tests to make
sure the rings are tough enough to withstand 1.4 times the stress they
experience during launch. That's always been a rule, but shuttle officials
waived the requirement before Columbia's launch.
in the thick posts that hold shuttles to the launch pad could cause a shuttle to
break up shortly after liftoff. The posts failed without disastrous results
during the launch just before Columbia. But NASA kept flying without redesigning
the system. NASA said Monday it will change how the posts are installed and
inspected before the next flight.
corrosive moisture at the shuttles' ocean-front home cause hidden damage to
critical parts such heatshield panels that protect the front of orbiter wings.
That can lead to the type of fatal heat breach that downed Columbia. Shuttle
engineers are studying corrosion concerns, but have not yet identified specific
of those changes are included in the $280 million worth of return to flight
costs outlined in the report. That preliminary budget focused on changes already
in the works.
vast majority of those costs are associated with eliminating the problem of foam
insulation shedding from the external fuel tank during launch, damaging the
shuttle heat shield.
biggest item by far is the $65 million pegged for redesigning the tank.
$44 million is planned for improving ground cameras scattered across the Cape,
tracking shuttles as they roar off the pad. Faulty cameras gave engineers blurry
or unusable pictures of the debris strike. That left mission managers without
critical information for deciding if Columbia was badly damaged and needed
emergency help. High-definition television cameras are planned.
ways to inspect and repair heat shield tiles in orbit could cost $57 million. A
new safety and engineering center at Langley Research Center in Virginia will
cost $45 million.
Columbia's crew cabin stayed
intact longer than the rest of the shuttle, and its condition could help
NASA develop ways to increase astronauts' chances of surviving future
A study included among hundreds
of new pages of documents released Tuesday by the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board said the survival of the Columbia cabin was similar to
what happened to the same part of Challenger after that shuttle exploded in
The work, by a special NASA team
formed at the request of the accident investigators, said data from both
accidents should be used to investigate crew escape techniques.
Future NASA space vehicles
should incorporate the knowledge gained in the Challenger and Columbia
accidents "in assessing the feasibility of designing vehicles that will
provide for crew survival even in the face of a mishap that results in the
loss of the vehicle," the report said.
In releasing the additional
documentation, the accident board and NASA stressed the findings and
recommendations of individual teams that did work to support the
investigation did not reflect the conclusions of the accident board.
In the board's official final
report, investigators did not rule on whether NASA should develop a
crew-escape system for the remaining space shuttles. Nor did it recommend as
a condition of returning the ships to flight that the crew compartment be
strengthened to increase the chance of astronauts surviving.
The report did not provide
specific details about how the crew died or how long the seven might have
survived, only that the compartment was intact for almost a minute longer
than the rest of the ship.
In general, the report said the
astronauts did not burn to death. They died from suffocation when the cabin
did finally rip apart and from the force of colliding with other objects at
incredibly high speeds as the wreckage fell to the ground.
The report also recommended
future crews be carefully trained to wear all of their protective gear. The
forensic review showed three of the seven astronauts were not wearing their
gloves and one was not wearing a helmet. The report said, however, that none
of that would have increased the astronauts' chances of surviving the
debris recovery duties fall to KSC
14, 11:12 PM By
Chris Kridler FLORIDA
CAPE CANAVERAL -- The center for
recovering shuttle debris moved to Kennedy Space Center this week from
Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The pieces from Columbia already
were moved from a hangar to a storage area in the Vehicle Assembly Building,
and NASA is considering several requests to study the debris. As pieces
trickle in, they will be sent directly to KSC instead of JSC.
Also, KSC will answer the
toll-free phone line people use to report debris, (866) 446-6603. It is
illegal for private citizens to keep debris from the orbiter, which
disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1. More discoveries are expected as hunting
season gets under way in east Texas, in the area of the main debris field.
"Every now and then, we get
some pieces that are sent to us," NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham said.
In addition, "we're still
getting calls from Challenger," he said. "People think they find
pieces of Challenger on the beach, and who do they call?"
It's been years since a verified
piece of Challenger debris was discovered, he said, though NASA knows where
much of the shuttle has settled on the ocean floor. The shuttle exploded
after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986.
The duties of the Columbia
Recovery Office will be handled by existing employees, Buckingham said.
CANAVERAL -- Shuttle Columbia's remains will begin moving to a final resting
place next week. But unlike debris from Challenger, some wreckage will be
available for scientific research and perhaps public display.
"Be it closure or whatever,
it's a good feeling to know we're going to try to keep the legacy of research
that Columbia stood for versus sealing her up under concrete," NASA
vehicle engineer Scott Thurston said Thursday.
NASA still hasn't decided whether
any of the 84,900 pieces of recovered debris ultimately will be given to the
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. But the institution
has first dibs on all excess NASA property.
High-ranking officials at NASA
headquarters are conferring with the families of Columbia's seven fallen
astronauts on the matter.
"We're trying to comply with
their wishes," said Thurston. "We don't want to upset the families.
They've undergone a tragedy."
More than 40 tons of Columbia
wreckage -- or about 38 percent of the vehicle -- was recovered during
three-month search for debris in east Texas and Louisiana. The debris then was
trucked to Kennedy Space Center, where it was reconstructed as part of an
investigation into the Feb. 1 accident.
Workers on Monday will begin
moving the debris to the 16th floor of NASA's 52-story Vehicle Assembly
Building from a hangar near the KSC runway.
There, it will be stored in a
6,800-square-foot room where temperatures will be kept at 65 degrees
Fahrenheit and humidity levels will be kept at 50 percent. The controlled
atmosphere is meant to preserve the debris for researchers.
The move is expected to be
complete by Oct. 1.
NASA in June announced its
intention to make some of the debris available to researchers. The agency
already has received 20 proposals, Thurston said.
Among those interested are
engineers working on NASA's planned Orbital Space Plane and university
researchers studying next-generation spaceships.
Items drawing the most attention:
the shuttle's composite carbon wing panels and thermal tiles, both of which
protect the orbiter from intense heat encountered during atmospheric reentry.
A breach in one of Columbia's wing
panels -- caused by a chunk of foam insulation that fell off the shuttle's
external tank -- allowed hot gasses to trigger the ship's disintegration.
Meanwhile, shuttle program
engineers already have obtained crucial shuttle fuel line bearings from
Columbia for testing, Thurston said.
Concerns the cracked bearings
could break apart and trigger a catastrophic main engine shutdown in flight
prompted an extensive engineering analysis before Columbia's Jan. 16 launch.
Debris from the 1986 Challenger
explosion was buried in two abandoned Minuteman missile silos at Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station.
over 'in-flight anomaly' gradually diminished over 20 years
26, 9:32 PM
-- A fateful moment in the shuttle Columbia disaster actually happened months
In October, a big chunk of foam
came off the external tank and struck one of shuttle Atlantis' booster
rockets. During the next few weeks, that debris strike came up several times
as NASA managers worked to clear Endeavour for its November flight to space
Every time before, when big foam
chunks had broken free from what's called the bipod area of the fuel tank,
NASA treated it as an "in-flight anomaly." That designation prompts
a higher level of attention to fixing a problem before the next shuttle flies.
But this time with Atlantis,
managers decided the foam debris hit was not an in-flight anomaly. Tank
engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center were asked to find out why the foam
shed from the tank and propose a fix. But flights could go on.
The change was the culmination of
two decades of declining concern about foam debris within the shuttle program,
a decision the Columbia Accident Investigation Board identified as
"pivotal" to the accident that would occur several months later.
That decision to go ahead with
Endeavour's flight and later Columbia's was far from the only bad choice NASA
made about the foam debris problem that has plagued the shuttle program since
the first launch in 1981.
The accident board
"audited" NASA records to identify damage from foam debris on at
least 79 of the 113 shuttle flights to date, and larger bipod foam debris on
at least seven flights, each time tearing up the delicate heat-shield tiles on
the orbiter's belly.
The findings nearly mirror those
of Florida Today's own review of more than two decades worth of shuttle
documents, which found documentation of foam debris on at least 74 missions.
The board and the newspaper audits
discovered NASA made incremental attempts during the years to understand and
fix the problem. However, as shuttle after shuttle returned home safely with
foam-battered heat shields, NASA gained confidence that it was merely an
irritating maintenance problem.
Agency engineers believed strongly
that the lightweight foam could not possibly do enough damage to bring down an
orbiter. The board said that assumption, and many others about the foam, have
been disproved by experiments prompted by the accident.
"The persistent uncertainty
about the causes of foam loss and potential orbiter damage results from a lack
of thorough hazard analysis and engineering attention," the board's
maiden voyage to tragic end, Columbia always magical
That tight lump in your throat
came as a true surprise during the sky-shredding sunrise of April 12, 1981.
The fact that you were spending
your birthday at the Kennedy Space Center press site was incidental; you
certainly weren't sentimental about getting older, not anymore. In fact, you
were in danger of growing cynical about damn near everything.
Disco was still sloshing over the
sides of a new decade. Styx, REO Speedwagon and Rush (not Limbaugh) had a
hammerlock on the heavy rotation, and if you wanted to hear Lou Reed or The
Clash, you had to buy the vinyl. The hits cranking out of John Lennon's
"Double Fantasy" album were bleak skips reminding you that the
smartest Beatle had been murdered, murdered, murdered.
The Soviets were still in
Afghanistan long after we'd punished our own athletes by boycotting the Moscow
Olympics. And oh, by the way, this just in: Pope John Paul II has been gunned
down in Rome.
Couldn't anyone do anything right?
A few months earlier, America
celebrated the release of 53 American hostages from Iran like it was V-J Day,
but the sad truth was, they were stranded because Murphy's Law had cooked up a
sirocco that left two military rescue aircraft in flames and eight troops dead
in a Persian desert. But you didn't have to go to the other side of the world
to witness grand-scale futility: Cocoa Beach joined the club when the shoddy
Harbour Cay condo tower collapsed on 34 construction workers, killing 11.
The news got so bad that Elton
John said he wouldn't live in America's turbulence "if they paid me 100
pounds a minute." From the first homicide ever recorded at Disneyland (an
18-year-old stabbed to death) to an assassination attempt on President Reagan
by a lunatic addicted to Martin Scorcese's "Taxi Driver," the
repetition of failure created a zone where all expectations were dark.
That was the world Columbia was
born into, and escaped from, 22 years ago.
The first time you laid eyes on
her was at night, as you drove east along the Bennett Causeway toward Cape
Canaveral. She was unsullied and breathtaking, bathed in criss-crossed
spotlights on the barrier island like some Hollywood angel, her entire
wardrobe, even the external fuel tank, white as that of a virgin bride. She
reduced you to a cliche with your very first words: "Oh my god."
Just days before the maiden
voyage, pilgrims began arriving in numbers the Civil Defense experts put at
somewhere between 500,000 and a million. That seemed absurd, considering
Brevard's entire population was 273,000. Yet when you prowled the colonies of
campers and vans, amid the aroma of barbecue, they had crowded the riverbanks
with such economy, you could picture yourself leaping from roof to roof for a
quarter-mile stretch without touching the ground.
The pubs in Cape Canaveral stayed
open all night on the eve of the scheduled Friday morning premiere, and Cocoa
Beach bartenders geared up with red-white-and-blue Shuttle Shooter specials.
It felt like the stories you'd read about during the Mercury/Apollo days. The
air was charged with rumors of celebrity sightings: Jerry Brown, Liza Minelli,
John Denver, Cab Calloway, Steven Spielberg, Pat Boone, George Lucas, Robert
Redford, Neil Armstrong, Nichelle "Lt. Uhura" Nichols.
You weren't sure what to expect
last month during a funereal viewing billed as the "Columbia
Reconstruction Hangar Walk Through," when 11,000 NASA employees and
families were invited to tour the ruins of America's first space shuttle. But
you knew you had to go. Because the bird was as much a part of your own
history now as Tobacco Road Christmas photos and letters from old girlfriends.
You were flooded by flashbacks as
the NASA bus left the KSC Visitor Complex on a hot July morning and made way
for the autopsy room inside a hangar optimistically intended for the next
generation of space vehicles. Along the way, guide Robert Owler rattled off
Columbia's staggering numbers over the microphone:
Twenty-eight missions covering
roughly 123 million miles (you did the conversions: the equivalent of more
than 200 round trips from Earth to the Moon). A spectacular accident scene 10
miles wide and 280 miles long. Some 84,833 pieces recovered, and yet, just 38
percent of Columbia's dry body weight accounted for. She'd been so thoroughly
obliterated, the average piece of debris weighed a little more than a pound.
Owler, a member of the
reconstruction team, knew his numbers like preachers know the Scriptures.
"For the first few weeks, it was kind of tough on us all," he said.
"There are a lot of teardrops on that hangar floor."
Owler said Columbia's remains were
laid out on the slab upside down, since her belly was most crucial to
investigators. He advised visitors to note the difference between the right
and the left wings. There were mental-health counselors on duty, just in case.
You'd already seen the photos, so
you knew what to expect. Still, when you stepped into the hangar, the shock
was visceral. You never dreamed you'd get within an arm's length of what was
once the most complex aircraft ever dispatched into the high frontier. Now
that you were here, you couldn't recognize Columbia with a blueprint chart.
The first challenge was optical,
the bewilderment of having no focal reference point amid the tediously
re-articulated chaos of blasted mid-decks and fuselage paneling and thruster
fragments. So your gaze drifted upward, from the morgue floor to the ceiling,
gauging the negative composition, the vacuum of what wasn't there.
The second challenge was trying to
connect this static exhibition of mangled technology to the atmospheric
violence responsible for creating it. You'd seen the replays of Columbia's
tumbling fireball a billion times on TV, at different stages, from multiple
angles. Here were the results, stark but blank. Proof without comprehension.
You wandered the corridors of the
display grid, looking for familiar shapes amid the curiosities. The most
prominent item stood, literally, nearly 90 degrees from the floor on its
fulcrum. The debris analyst said it was a 16-foot long strip of aluminum from
the belly structure. "From what we can tell," he said, "this
was found wrapped around a tree."
The landing gear, strut and wheel
intact – you recognized those things. Fire extinguisher bottles from the
cabin. Another team member deciphered those round balls to the rear as helium
tanks, weighing anywhere from 60 to 100 pounds on empty. "We recovered
all 34 of them," he said.
The shadow of what Columbia once
was began to materialize, vaguely, in clinical increments of explanation and
deduction. The payload bay here, the tunnel airlock assembly there. And sure
enough, over yonder, the left wing was as sketchy as a mirage, its leading
edge of reinforced carbon-carbon panels – designed to withstand temperatures
of 2,300 degrees – missing as if devoured.
But it was the cabin window frame,
panels 1 through 6 intact, that packed the wallop.
Propped up by boards to face the
crowds, honored with an arrangement of roses, the forward frame "looks
like goggles," remarked a visitor. This was where you rubbernecked and
came to a dead stop, like at a car wreck, compelled by tiny details, the
chunks of glass embedded in the sills, the clots of pine straw and dried mud.
You could relate to this.
You remembered the beginning, just
south of Jetty Park at night, before the launch, tromping through a stand of
secretive Australian pines to observe the communion unfurling beneath the
Milky Way. To the north stood launch pad 39A, out of sight but scattering an
aura of reflected light far above the horizon. In the opposite direction, as
far as you could see, bonfires and lanterns awaited the new sensation. Bottle
rockets whistled and popped Independence Day.
Even so, after a computer glitch
pushed Columbia's debut to early Sunday morning, you found yourself at the
NASA press site with 4,000 other media, expecting the worst. You paced and
wandered, amped up on caffeine, sleepless for nearly 48 hours, making small
talk with some Brits, eavesdropping on foreign tongues to no avail, alert for
At exactly 7 a.m., the digital
countdown clock struck zero and the entire world compressed into a hypnotic
vertical window of flames and chemical clouds. Columbia's crackling engines
stripped the very wallpaper off the dawn, and as she struggled to leave the
Earth, her heart pounded through your shoes, clean up into your shoulders.
You were right there with it, from
the get-go, tracking her from sea level, then unclenching with her as she
climbed away from it all, away from the shootings and the lousy TV shows and
the politics and all other manner of mortal foibles. Your fashionable
detachment collapsed, and there you were, jumping up and down like a kid in a
"Go, baby! Go!" We'd
done something right, something huge, and it kept on going and going, higher
and higher, like it would never come down again, and --"Go! Go!" –
even when it vanished for good, you were still up there, suspended forever in
the blink of a moment where myths and gods are no less real than bones of
-- Tests prompted by the Columbia accident proved the foam insulation
surrounding the shuttle fleet's 15-story external fuel tanks can absorb large
amounts of water.
The finding is significant because
foam filled with water or ice would be heavier than dry foam, thus making it
capable of doing more damage if it smashed into the shuttle's heat shield
during flight. A piece of foam insulation fell off of Columbia's tank during
liftoff in January and struck the shuttle's left wing. It apparently caused
enough damage to doom the ship during reentry on Feb. 1.
The ongoing research at NASA and
universities across the country is helping NASA make progress toward fixing
the foam debris problem. The problem has plagued the shuttle program since the
first launch in 1981. It is an issue that must be resolved before the three
remaining shuttles can fly again.
"It would be great if, in the
end, I could feel I had contributed to eliminating this problem," said
Douglas Osheroff, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Stanford University
who serves on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and did some of the
foam tests in his college lab.
Some of the experiments prove what
Florida Today reported in March: two types of foam that have most often
come off shuttle external tanks are handcrafted in ways that make them
vulnerable to soaking up moisture.
NASA engineers insisted in the
months since the Columbia accident that the foam is impervious to moisture.
"There's a lot of common
wisdom about this foam," Osheroff said. "Sometimes common wisdom is
not very wise."
The board's final report on the
accident, set to be released Tuesday, will criticize NASA for not
understanding the material properties of the foam and other shuttle parts.
The independent investigators
found NASA's faulty assumptions about foam colored its decisions to treat the
persistent debris damage as an acceptable risk. Every shuttle ever launched
has come home battered by foam insulation, ice and other debris.
Florida Today found foam
from the tank hit shuttles on at least 74 of 113 missions to date. Incremental
fixes were made because the foam was tearing up the critical heat-shield
tiles. That extra maintenance needed between flights cost the agency and
shuttle contractor time and money.
Yet the shuttles kept flying
because, early in the program, engineers grew confident the lightweight foam
could not possibly do enough damage to down a shuttle. In that context,
mission managers decided Columbia would get home safe despite having seen
launch films showing a large chunk of foam splattering against the shuttle's
Set a goal
The accident board's report will
not recommend specific engineering solutions, but will urge NASA to meet the
original shuttle requirement that nothing should hit the orbiter in flight.
"We may not be able to
recommend that NASA stop any foam loss, but we would like to see them make
that the goal," Osheroff said. "It should be a goal to have zero
foam coming off the tank."
The researchers started out
experimenting to find out how the foam failed on Columbia's flight, but they
have branched out seeking to identify the causes of the foam shedding in
Water absorption is becoming one
promising line of inquiry.
At Marshall Space Flight Center in
Alabama, a NASA researcher recreated the environment the foam experiences when
the external tank is filled with a half-million gallons of cryogenic fuels,
exposing one side of the foam to temperatures as cold as 423 degrees below
zero. The other side is exposed to the elements, including the typically humid
air at the shuttles' seaside launch pads.
In that simulation, the foam did
soak up water.
Osheroff and some Stanford
University graduate students conducted similar tests on a nine-square-inch
piece of foam and found it absorbed 4.5 grams of water over 24 hours.
"That basically doubles the mass of the foam," Osheroff said. He
noted that the tank normally only endures those conditions for six or seven
hours before a normal launch, unless there are delays.
"One interesting question is
can water intrinsically make the foam less strong?" Osheroff said.
"If it doubles in mass and it's subjected to these intense vibrations,
maybe there's an issue there. The water does not contribute to the strength,
that's for sure."
NASA discounted any suggestion
that the foam that struck Columbia harbored hidden water or ice. Even after
the accident, when scientists and other experts noted that similar foams could
absorb moisture, NASA said its foam was unique.
NASA believed the material's cells
are so tightly packed together that even water or gas molecules can't get
inside. The foam is sprayed on the tank in layers, mostly by robots, and the
outer surface hardens into a rind to further protect it from moist air
Holes in foam
Florida Today reported in
March, however, that the foam is made differently for the area around the
bipod, where two struts connect the tank to the orbiter. That area, which is
just below the pointy top end of the bullet-shaped fuel tank, is where the
vast majority of foam has come loose during 22 years of shuttle flights.
Workers shave off that hardened
outer rind when applying the foam and cut it to form the aerodynamic bipod
ramps. It was a piece of foam from this area that hit Columbia, and NASA plans
to eliminate those pieces of foam altogether before returning the remaing
shuttles to flight.
Workers also poke tiny holes in
the foam to vent gas trapped inside air pockets in the insulation. This is
done so the gas does not rapidly expand later and blast pieces of foam off the
tank. But the holes also provide a way for moisture to get inside the foam.
The scientists found that the foam
that has not had the rind shaved off "absorbs much less weight,"
The piece of foam that hit
Columbia could have contained hidden water or ice. It was unusually wet and
humid during the 39 days Columbia sat on the launch pad and weather conditions
the night the tank was filled with supercold propellants offered a
near-perfect environment for moisture and ice to seep into the foam.
There is no proof that moisture or
ice helped cause the 1.67-pound piece of bipod foam to break free from
Columbia's tank. Investigators are convinced the cause was a combination of
aerodynamic forces and defects in the foam ramp.
What scientists don't know yet is
whether the moisture soaking into the foam can weaken it somehow. More work is
being done on that issue. NASA's external tank manager did not respond to a
request for an interview.
"The easy solution is not to
let the water in at all," Osheroff said.
One suggested solution is
"painting" or covering the foam with some kind of waterproof
sealant. NASA used to paint the tank white, but stopped to reduce the weight
of the shuttle.
Osheroff and others are not
suggesting "painting" the entire tank, however. They will focus on
the relatively small areas most susceptible to absorbing water and foam
convinced," he said, "that the weight gain due to uptake of water is
comparable to the paint."
More experimentation is needed on
many fronts, Osheroff said. Water is far from the only issue.
For example, Osheroff has
suggested that NASA study whether problems that crop up during application of
the spray-on foam can introduce defects and weak bonds.
During the investigation, the
board found that some of the foam, including the bipod ramps, contained tiny
air pockets, voids and weak bonds. All of those problems can contribute to
foam coming off the tank when combined with the intense forces experienced
NASA might revise
shuttle flight paths to curb risks
By Michael Cabbage | Sentinel
Space Editor Posted August 1, 2003
CAPE CANAVERAL -- NASA is studying possible
changes to the space shuttle's flight paths during landing to minimize risk
to people on the ground.
A July 16 internal National Aeronautics and Space Administration document
obtained by the Orlando Sentinel indicates the space agency is, for the
first time, assessing the risk associated with shuttle landings at Kennedy
Space Center, Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California's Mojave Desert
and New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range.
The most likely result could be to restrict certain landing approaches to
the shuttle's backup runway at Edwards. According to the document, public
risk is by far the greatest for shuttle landings at Edwards that fly over
the densely populated Los Angeles basin.
Additional options being analyzed include eliminating landing approaches
over other heavily populated areas, modifying the way the shuttle maneuvers
during re-entry and possibly using alternate runways at California's
Vandenberg Air Force Base and foreign sites. While some of those
alternatives are considered long shots, any changes would be implemented
before the fleet's three remaining orbiters return to flight next year.
"Assessing public risk is a new requirement to the shuttle
program," the NASA document says. "NASA should evaluate risk,
select criteria and alter flight rules to manage risk."
The goal is to expose as few people as possible to the risk of falling
debris in case another shuttle suffers a catastrophe during landing like
Columbia's breakup over Texas on Feb. 1. No one on the ground was injured.
But more than 42 tons of shuttle fragments -- some weighing hundreds of
pounds -- rained on a 2,400-square-mile corridor in mostly rural
east-central Texas and western Louisiana.
Even so, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board doesn't plan to press
NASA for changes in landing procedures. A July 8 presentation on the
Columbia accident and debris hazards done for the board by ACTA Inc., a
risk-management and -analysis company, concluded: "A lack of casualties
was the expected event."
"We think something NASA should include in planning is risk assessment
of debris," board spokeswoman Laura Brown said, "but it will not
be a major part of the board's report."
No major changes
A draft version of the ACTA study determined the risk of injury to
people on the ground or to other aircraft from Columbia's breakup was
minimal. That risk likely wouldn't have risen much even if the breakup had
occurred over a large urban area, the board-commissioned study concluded.
The investigation board has found parallels with civil aviation. Each year,
thousands of airplanes -- many larger than Columbia and flying at much lower
altitudes -- crisscross the country, causing few, if any, deaths on the
ground. That comparison has helped lead NASA managers and investigators to
agree that it may be unnecessary to make major changes to shuttle landings.
"I can't imagine that we would want to change the landing trajectory
and course simply to avoid that in the future," NASA Administrator Sean
O'Keefe said in June. "That would be the equivalent of stopping all
commercial airline traffic in all metropolitan areas."
NASA never has done a study, however, to assess the risk from falling debris
during shuttle landings, although launch risks are well-documented.
Engineers now are working to evaluate the risk for each landing route. Those
routes vary according to the shuttle's orbit and the landing site.
The shuttle flies to three basic orbits designated by the angle of the orbit
to Earth's equator: 51.6 degrees for missions to the space station, 28.5
degrees for missions to service the Hubble Space Telescope and 39 degrees
for many space-science missions. The orbit helps determine the path the
shuttle must take to return home.
Another factor is whether the shuttle is landing on a so-called ascending or
The shuttle crosses the equator twice during each 90-minute orbit. The part
of the orbit where the shuttle crosses from the south headed north is called
an ascending node. The part of the orbit where the shuttle heads from north
to south is called a descending node.
NASA has begun calculating population densities and public risk along
various 35-mile-wide ground tracks leading to all three landing sites. The
tracks -- and the accompanying risk -- change according to which orbit the
shuttle is headed home from and whether it is landing on an ascending or
descending node. According to NASA's preliminary analysis, the riskiest
landings are ascending-node touchdowns from all three orbits at Edwards that
fly over the Los Angeles area. Some ascending-node landings at KSC also pass
near Mexico City, one of the world's most populous urban areas.
The shuttle landing site with the lowest overall risk is White Sands.
However, that location's windswept gypsum-sand runways have hosted only a
single shuttle landing -- Columbia in March 1982 -- because, in part, of
sand that was blown inside the orbiter. Landing-support facilities at White
Sands also are limited.
Lowering the risk
The shuttle program is working to figure out what is an acceptable level
Once that happens, NASA plans to modify flight rules to restrict landing
opportunities that exceed that level. NASA also is assessing the overflight
risk involved with ferrying the shuttle back to KSC for processing and
launch atop a modified jumbo jet after landings at Edwards and White Sands.
Besides risk and population studies, engineers have begun looking at the
types of failures the shuttle might suffer while re-entering Earth's
atmosphere and how that might affect its flight path. Analysts are
cataloging the likely size and makeup of pieces that would make it to the
ground under different kinds of breakups.
Another study is under way to examine whether risk can be reduced for a
given landing opportunity by changing how the shuttle maneuvers during
re-entry. The shuttle performs a series of four left and right banks called
S-turns during landing to slow down before reaching the runway. Engineers
are looking at whether switching the direction of the first bank could cut
risk to populated areas.
Vandenberg AFB considered
NASA also is evaluating new potential landing sites at Vandenberg Air
Force Base on California's central coast and unspecified foreign runways.
Landings at foreign sites are considered unlikely, however, because of
security concerns and the difficulty with ferrying the orbiter back to KSC.
The final result could be few, if any, changes to the way the shuttle has
landed for more than two decades.
Some critics have voiced concern that had Columbia broken up moments earlier
over the Dallas-Fort Worth area, casualties could have been enormous. Many
NASA managers, as well as board investigators, say those concerns are
"Even if it had come down over Dallas-Fort Worth," one manager at
NASA's Johnson Space Center said, "the debris would have been so spread
out that the probability is low that anyone would have been killed."
Gwyneth K. Shaw of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report from
Washington. Michael Cabbage can be reached at 321-639-0522 or email@example.com.
CAPE CANAVERAL -- Less than half
of shuttle Columbia's crew cabin was recovered after the Feb. 1 disaster and
extraordinary efforts to guard its sensitive remains hindered the
investigation into the accident.
A report by the team that
reconstructed Columbia also said there is no evidence fire erupted inside the
two-level crew cabin before the shuttle disintegrated in the skies over Texas.
Superhot gases damaged the cabin
less than other parts of the $2 billion spaceship, the report said. Among the
items recovered: parts of cabin walls, window frames and its mid-deck floor
along with remnants of the spacesuits that were aboard.
"The condition of the recovered
debris items varied widely; from highly melted, twisted and torn, to near
pristine," the document said.
The 160-page report did not
directly deal with the astronauts' final moments. Officials with NASA and the
Columbia Accident Investigation Board have repeatedly declined to discuss
those matters out of respect for the astronauts' families.
But the document sheds new light
on the remarkable effort to reconstruct America's first shuttle and the
emotional difficulties of handling the crew cabin and the astronauts' personal
It also shows NASA was concerned
astronaut items could be stolen and sold. And the report recommended NASA
draft a standard protocol for dealing with crew cabin debris in the future.
Spanning five months, the endeavor
involved hauling more than 40 tons of wreckage to Kennedy Space Center from
Texas and Louisiana aboard 27 tractor-trailers.
Search and recovery teams took
extreme care with any part of the crew cabin, particularly the personal
effects of the seven astronauts killed in the accident.
A process was set up in the field
"to segregate and protect those types of debris to ensure they were not
exposed to public or media viewing and to prevent theft," the report said.
Sensitive items were packed in
boxes and labeled. Drivers escorted those boxes in the cabs of transport
trucks from Barksdale Air Force Base in the northwest corner of Louisiana.
A select team of astronauts was
put in charge of handling the crew cabin debris once it arrived at a KSC
hangar where the debris was stored and analyzed. They cordoned off that debris
and kept it out of view. Some pieces were locked up.
"Crew personal and sensitive items
were kept segregated even within the crew module area because of their
potential emotional impact and also their potential financial value," the
The astronauts' personal items and
commemorative objects sent into space by the agency itself "were kept in a
locked cabinet in the segregated area as an extra measure of security."
Even photographs of astronauts'
personal effects were kept in a password-secured section of a computer
database containing debris information
The authors of the report, who led
the reconstruction effort, said the overall handling of cabin debris "was
exceptional and accommodated the appropriate level of discretion to protect
the interests of NASA and the families."
However, some issues were
encountered during the effort. Most of the investigators examining orbiter
debris were not allowed access to the crew module area, and that hampered
their effort to determine the cause of the accident.
"Understandably, there were some
sensitivity issues that had to be taken into consideration when dealing with
the human aspect of space flight, but it was very difficult to determine
failure scenarios when only looking at a fraction of the debris for the
forward section of the vehicle," the report said.
"Strictly from an investigative
perspective, it was burdensome having the interior crew module structure
segregated from the rest of the structure and only observable to a select
The report also said engineers
involved in the reconstruction effort received "little direction concerning
the level of investigation to be performed on the crew module" from NASA and
independent accident investigators.
The team initially planned to
analyze the crew cabin debris using the same processes applied to the rest of
the ship. However, much later in the investigation, they learned that NASA had
commissioned a separate crew module investigation without their knowledge.
"An earlier understanding of the
crew module reconstruction initiative could have facilitated the
investigation," the report said.
The problems prompted the team to
make a recommendation. They urged NASA to write standards for future
investigations dealing with "legal status and handling of crew personal
effects, handling sensitive items like crew helmets, physical access to the
crew module related debris and accessibility of data records and photographs."
The reconstruction team, meanwhile, came to the same conclusion as the broader
investigative team about the technical cause of the accident. Relying upon
high-tech forensic analysis of the 83,900 pieces of recovered debris, the team
said hot gases breached the leading edge of the shuttle's left wing during
National Desk | July 9, 2003, Wednesday Earlier
Shuttle Flight Had Gas Enter Wing on Return
By JOHN SCHWARTZ and
MATTHEW L. WALD (NYT) 1160 words Late Edition - Final ,
Section A , Page 14 , Column 1
ABSTRACT - NASA
releases documents showing that space shuttle Columbia was not first to have
superheated gas invade its left wing on re-entering Earth's atmosphere;
documents show that shuttle Atlantis went into orbit in 2000 with quarter-inch
breach in wing's leading edge, allowing blowtorch-hot plasma into wing on
re-entry; unlike Columbia accident, in which entire crew was killed, Atlantis
incident resulted in only minor damage, leaving wing's inner structure intact;
Prof Paul A Czysz, expert not involved in Columbia investigation, says
Atlantis incident should have put NASA on high alert about wing damage;
documents are released by NASA under Freedom of Information Act request (M)
The space shuttle Columbia was not the first to have superheated gas invade
its left wing on re-entering Earth's atmosphere, according to documents
released yesterday by NASA.
In 2000, the documents show, the shuttle Atlantis went into orbit with a
quarter-inch breach in the wing's leading edge, allowing blowtorch-hot plasma
into the wing on re-entry. But unlike the accident that destroyed the Columbia
on Feb. 1 and killed its crew of seven, the incident resulted in only minor
damage, leaving the wing's inner structure intact.
8, 10:51 PM
breached 3 times
gases penetrated orbiters before shuttle tragedy
CANAVERAL -- Superhot gases burned through shuttle wings on at least three
missions before the Feb. 1 loss of Columbia, causing significant but less severe
damage to orbiters, internal NASA documents show.
What's more, the shuttle's
composite carbon wing panels -- which protect the ships and astronauts from
intense heat encountered during atmospheric re-entry -- were damaged but not
breached on at least nine additional missions, records show.
NASA already is launching an effort
to gauge the integrity of its reinforced carbon carbon panels, which serve as
thermal armor for the front edge of shuttle wings.
The agency also will use more
high-tech means for inspecting the $800,000 panels, such as ultrasonic and
electric current examinations.
Both endeavors are being carried
out in response to a recommendation from the Columbia Accident Investigation
Board. Both are to be completed before NASA returns it's remaining three
shuttles to flight.
"There are teams that are
evaluating all aspects of the vehicle to posture us to return to flight as soon
and safely as possible," said Kyle Herring, a spokesman for NASA's Johnson
Space Center in Houston. "We're going do everything we can, obviously, to
do those kinds of inspections to ensure that the vehicle is safe."
One of the panels on Columbia's
left wing was struck by a 1.7-pound piece of foam insulation that broke free
from the shuttle's 15-story external tank 81 seconds after a Jan. 16 launch.
Accident investigators say the
debris strike damaged the panel so badly that hot gases penetrated the wing
during atmospheric re-entry, causing the ship to disintegrate over East Texas.
All seven astronauts aboard were
A Florida Today review of mission
and runway inspection reports as well as separate NASA problem reports, many of
which the newspaper obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that
damage to the leading edge of the shuttles' wings is not uncommon or new.
The three previous breaches are
The composite carbon panels
encounter temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit during atmospheric
re-entry. A penetration of hot gases, consequently, can lead to the loss of a $2
billion shuttle and its astronaut crew.
The problem dates back to the early
days of the shuttle program.
On NASA's second shuttle flight in
November 1981, hot gases blasted past Columbia's wing panels near a spot where
they join with heat-shield tiles on the underside of the orbiter, according to a
The searing heat scorched and
burned through a fiber barrier used to fill gaps between heat-shield components.
The gases streaked an aluminum spar inside one of wing, the report says.
NASA subsequently modified the
thermal barrier and saw less damage on the next flight.
A similar problem, however, cropped
up again on NASA's fifth shuttle flight in November 1982 -- another Columbia
A jet of hot gas melted a small
hole in a tile-covered metal bar connected to a wing panel. It damaged internal
insulation but none of the metal components inside the wing, a mission report
No damage was noted on the next
A more recent incident came at the
end of a May 2000 Atlantis mission to the International Space Station. On that
flight, hot gases penetrated a dislodged seal between two panels on the
shuttle's left wing.
A subsequent investigation showed
the seal had been installed improperly during a shuttle overhaul, creating a
quarter-inch gap that served as a "substantial flow path" for hot
gases, a NASA document says.
Charred and scorched as a result:
Internal components made of Inconel and titanium – metals that have melting
points between 2,500 and 3,000 degrees, respectively.
The damage was repaired and NASA
ordered changes in the way that seals between wing panels are installed.
Less threatening but still
significant damage has been more common.
Micrometeoroids and launch debris
strikes dented or cracked wing panels on at least nine missions between April
1991 and March 2001, NASA records show.
Wing panels also have been damaged
by exposure to extreme temperatures and pressures encountered during flight. And
zinc primer leaching off the launch tower has corroded them.
The lesser damage has ranged from
small pits to larger cracks.
Investigators have raised concerns
about whether the panels weaken with age too. Only three of Columbia's panels
were replaced during its 22 years of flight.
Investigators, meanwhile, think
even a relatively small crack in a wing panel could doom a shuttle crew. The
damage done to Columbia, however, likely was more dramatic.
In a test Monday, a 1.7-pound chunk
of foam blasted a 16-inch hole in a shuttle wing panel. Investigators say the
experiment at San Antonio's Southwest Research Institute was the most realistic
simulation of the debris hit that downed Columbia.
Superhot gases breached shuttle in 2000
Tuesday, July 8, 2003 Posted: 5:34 PM EDT (2134 GMT)
WASHINGTON (AP) --Superheated
gases breached the left wing of shuttle Atlantis during its fiery return to
earth in hauntingly similar fashion to the demise of Columbia nearly three years
later, according to internal NASA documents.
Unlike Columbia, Atlantis suffered no irreparable damage during the May 2000
episode and, after repairs, returned to flight just four months later. NASA
ordered fleetwide changes in how employees install protective wing panels and
The small leak through a seam in Atlantis' wing during its return from the
international space station was disclosed in documents sought by The Associated
Press under the Freedom of Information Act.
The mission commander was James Halsell, a shuttle veteran who is
coordinating NASA's effort to return the shuttles to flight.
One of the seven Atlantis astronauts, Mary Ellen Weber, said NASA never told
her about the breach, which was not discovered until the shuttle had landed.
"There are thousands and thousands of things that can go wrong, and the
crew is very much aware this can happen," Weber said. "Certainly, when
you learn about this, if it had progressed, it could have been much more
Weber operated the robotic arm aboard Atlantis and flew aboard Discovery in
July 1995. She said NASA may have reported the wing damage to other crew
Attempts by AP to reach the other astronauts by telephone through family
members and NASA offices in Houston and Washington were unsuccessful; one
Atlantis crewman was a Russian cosmonaut and another has left NASA to return to
the Air Force.
NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said crews and engineers generally
participate in two months of meetings to discuss their experiences and
He could not say whether the shuttle's commander or pilot was told about the
wing breach, which NASA blamed on incorrectly installed sealant material.
Some experts expressed surprise that superheated gases ever had leaked inside
a shuttle's wing. Although protective wing panels have been found damaged, even
cracked, the Columbia disaster was widely believed outside NASA to have been the
first such breach.
"Very little information about the flaws of the tile system ever make it
into the open literature, so those of us who work on this ... seldom hear much
about serious problems such as this one," said Steven P. Schneider, an
associate professor at Purdue University's Aerospace Sciences Lab. "I've
never heard this sort of leak occurred."
NASA said it later determined Atlantis' exterior wing panels were not damaged
by the overheating despite being discolored from the high temperatures.
Aluminum structures inside the wing "looked outstanding," NASA
said. Other parts immediately behind the wing panels were covered with a glassy
material, apparently from melted insulating tile and other sealant material.
Hartsfield said all damaged parts were replaced.
Oversight board ordered changes
The space agency formally reported the damage to its Program Requirements
Control Board, an internal safety oversight body, which ordered fleetwide
improvements in the installation of sealant materials before Atlantis was
allowed to launch for its mission in September 2000.
Atlantis is expected to be the next shuttle into space when NASA is cleared
to resume flights.
Weber, now an associate vice president at the University of Texas
Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, described Atlantis' return to Earth as
mostly routine and remembered seeing an orange glow from hot gases dancing
outside the shuttle windows.
Although damage inside Atlantis' left wing was detected post-flight, NASA
worried about the shuttle's return even before the discovery.
During liftoff, a 6-inch chunk of ice had smashed against the back edge of
the right wing; so experts deemed it prudent to adjust Atlantis' flight to
rapidly cool its wings prior to the fiery trip through the atmosphere, NASA
It was impossible to know whether this cooling technique, called a thermal
conditioning maneuver, also helped minimize heat damage inside Atlantis'
defective left wing. NASA later determined damage on the right wing was
The board investigating Columbia's February 1 breakup determined that
superheated gases penetrated protective wing panels that had been loosened by
insulating foam that broke off its external fuel tank on liftoff and smashed
against the shuttle.
Investigators believe searing re-entry temperatures melted key structures
inside until Columbia tumbled out of control and broke apart at close to 13,000
miles per hour, killing its seven astronauts.
NASA did not consider ordering the thermal conditioning maneuver on Columbia
because it believed such a move would have interfered with efforts to warm
Columbia's landing gear tires for a safe landing.
NASA blamed the Atlantis damage on improper installation of a seal between
two protective panels on the shuttle's left wing, "called a butterfly gap
filler," at the Boeing Co. plant in Palmdale, California, during an
overhaul of Atlantis in late 1997.
The mistake went unnoticed during subsequent inspections because the part
could not be seen without removing protective panels, NASA said.
Engineers found the damage on Atlantis while investigating the mystery of a
partially melted insulating tile. Removing two protective wing panels nearby and
peering inside the wing structure, they determined the dislodged seal had
created "a substantial flow path," according to NASA's internal
The gap measured just over one-quarter inch, about the width of a paperclip
or a No. 2 pencil.
The protective panels, insulators and other hardware inside the left wing
"shows various signs of overheating," NASA reported. Photographs
showed charred and scorched components, including parts made from titanium and
inconel, two of the most heat-resistant materials on the shuttle. Titanium melts
about 3,000 degrees; inconel melts about 2,550 degrees.
Investigators examining Columbia's breakup remain uncertain over the size of
the gap that permitted hot gases to penetrate that shuttle's wing. But they
believe it was as small as a one-inch slit running vertically up the wing for
nearly 30 inches.
In a test Monday, a chunk of foam blew open a dramatic 16-inch hole in parts
of a mock-up of a shuttle wing.
Temperatures during a shuttle's return can climb to almost 3,000 degrees --
nearly one-third as hot as the surface of the sun -- along parts of the
spacecraft, especially the leading edges of its wings. Damage there is
considerably more likely to doom a shuttle than anywhere else.
NASA requires immediate repairs when damage to the wing's protective panels
exceeds four-hundredths of an inch, about the thickness of a dime.
Copyright 2003 The Associated
Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast,
rewritten, or redistributed.
Shuttle investigator: 'We have found the smoking gun'
Monday, July 7, 2003 Posted: 10:52 PM EDT (0252 GMT)
A piece of foam damages a shuttle wing panel in a series of images
spanning less than half a second.
SAN ANTONIO, Texas (CNN) --An
investigator looking into what caused the disintegration of the space shuttle
Columbia as it came back to Earth in February said Monday the "smoking
gun" at the heart of the accident has been found.
The probable answer came during a series of tests that involved striking a
replica of the shuttle's wing with pieces of foam to recreate the strike on the
leading edge of Columbia's left wing 82 seconds after liftoff January 16.
A piece of foam fired at the replica at about 500 mph punched a hole
16-inches in diameter in the reinforced carbon material, as onlookers gasped at
the Southwest Research Institute.
"We have found the smoking gun," said Scott Hubbard, a member of
the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.
"The test we conducted ... demonstrates that this is in fact the most
probable cause creating the breach that led to the accident of the Columbia and
the loss of the crew and vehicle," Hubbard added.
This latest effort to determine what caused the Columbia disaster cost $3.4
million, according to The Associated Press.
The shuttle broke up as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere February 1,
spreading debris across large parts of Texas and Louisiana and killing all seven
crew members aboard.
From the beginning of its investigation, the CAIB had theorized that the foam
strike was one of the more likely causes of the accident.
Hubbard said he and other observers to the foam test felt a "visceral
reaction to the hole."
"It was so dramatic, I felt surprise at how it appeared, such a dramatic
punch through," he added. "But it is the kind of damage, the type of
damage, that must have occurred to bring down the orbiter."
The foam hit with the force of 1 ton and the impact was captured by 16
high-speed cameras while hundreds of sensors measured stresses and other
conditions, AP reported.
"There's a lot of collateral damage," said Hubbard.
Investigators believe this test leaves little room for doubt that Columbia
and her crew were doomed one minute and 22 seconds into their mission.
That's when video of the Columbia launch showed a piece of the foam that
insulates the shuttle's external tanks break off and bounce off the left wing.
NASA's shuttle team knew about the foam strike shortly after launch, but
presumed the light material could not pierce the tough carbon panels that
protect the wings.
But the breach that the foam strike caused in one of the reinforced carbon
panels allowed 3,000 degree Fahrenheit plasma to blowtorch the aluminum
structure of the wing as Columbia returned to Earth, ultimately causing the
orbiter to break apart.
Hubbard said the board may recommend that future shuttle flights have better
imagery on takeoff and the capability to perform in-orbit inspection and repair.
WASHINGTON - Even as
NASA engineers debated possible damage, a flight director e-mailed
Columbia's astronauts to say there was "absolutely no concern" that
breakaway foam that struck the space shuttle might endanger its safe
return. The shuttle's commander cheerily replied, "Thanks a million!"
Flight director J.S. "Steve"
Stich conveyed his assurance to Columbia's commander and pilot on Jan. 23,
according to documents disclosed Monday. At the time, engineers inside
NASA continued to debate and study whether insulating foam that smashed
against Columbia's wing on liftoff might have fatally damaged materials
protecting the shuttle during its fiery descent.
Such materials included the
gray-colored wing panels made from a material called reinforced carbon
carbon, known within NASA as RCC, and insulating tiles covering other
parts of the spacecraft.
"Experts have reviewed the
high speed photography and there is no concern for RCC or tile damage,"
Stich wrote to Columbia's commander, Rick D. Husband, and pilot, William
C. McCool. "We have seen the same phenomenon on several other flights and
there is absolutely no concern for entry. That is all for now. It's a
pleasure working with you every day."
Husband, a veteran shuttle
astronaut, replied two days later, on Jan. 25, "Thanks a million, Steve!
And thanks for the great work on your part."
Husband replied separately to
an e-mail Jan. 24 from another flight director, Jeffrey M. Hanley, who
sent a video clip showing the foam striking near Columbia's left wing
during liftoff. Husband wrote back early Jan. 27, "Thanks Jeff! And thanks
for the super work! We appreciate it."
Investigators are increasingly
convinced a chunk of foam from the external tank smashed against
Columbia's left wing, loosening a protective panel along the leading edge.
That could have permitted searing temperatures to penetrate the spacecraft
during its fiery return Feb. 1, melting key structures aboard Columbia
until it tumbled out of control at nearly 13,000 miles per hour. All seven
NASA has said previously that
Columbia's crew was apprised within days of the foam investigation and a
Jan. 27 conclusion that the shuttle would return safely. But the crew
members - and NASA's brass - were not told about an intense debate among
some midlevel engineers over concerns Columbia's left wing might burn off
and cause the deaths of the crew. Some preliminary, internal documents
shared among other engineers predicted as early as Jan. 21 that despite
any damage Columbia "maintains safe return capability."
Previously disclosed notes
from five high-level meetings during Columbia's mission showed that
shuttle managers hardly mentioned the subject and largely dismissed it
conclusively on Jan. 27 as "not a safety of flight concern." When they did
consider the foam strike, during a Jan. 21 meeting, it was the final
agenda item - after discussions about minor water leaks and a broken
camera on board.
NASA spokesman Kyle Herring
said Stich's Jan. 23 e-mail assurance was not sent to Columbia's crew as a
formal, operational dispatch and was based on ground assessments at the
time. Herring said if NASA had concluded that Columbia's return would be
risky, "then obviously more information would have been provided to the
crew through channels other than a personal e-mail."
All Husband's messages carried
the designation, "This is private/personal mail and not for release to
media." NASA released printouts of the exchanges under the Freedom of
Information Act and published them on its Web site.
The space agency also released
pages of cartoons and humor material laced with inside-NASA jokes sent to
Columbia's crew throughout the 16-day mission. One listed 10 phrases from
astronauts who previously flew only to the International Space Station,
including one gentle stab at the age of Columbia, NASA's oldest shuttle:
"I didn't realize Columbia still flew!"
threat to shuttle safety found
of faults in connecting bolts
WASHINGTON, June 12
— Investigators said
Thursday they discovered a dangerous new threat to America’s remaining three
space shuttles, a fault affecting the heavy bolts that connect the powerful
solid-rocket boosters to the external fuel tank. The Columbia Accident
Investigation Board, studying the fiery breakup of the Feb. 1 shuttle flight
over the southwestern United States, said it worried that parts from these
2-foot-long bolts could break free shortly after liftoff and smash against
delicate areas on spacecraft during future missions.
BOARD OFFICIALS SAID the fault involves a “bolt
catcher,” a container mounted on the fuel tank designed to capture fragments
of the attachment bolts immediately after NASA jettisons the powerful booster
rockets about 28 miles into the shuttle’s ascent.
Retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman, the head of the board,
said investigators determined that the bolt catcher was “not as robust as we
would want.” In testing, the bolt catcher was incapable of withstanding more
energy than the explosive power in pyrotechnic charges used to break them in
half during the jettison.
“We found there’s no margin,” Gehman said.
Air Force Maj. General John Barry, a board member,
indicated the flaw could delay NASA’s next shuttle launch.
“This is a possible return-to-flight issue,” said
Barry, calling the bolts a “pretty heavy piece of machinery.” When the bolts
break, each half weighs roughly 40 pounds. If such a bolt fragment were to
strike a shuttle wing, he said, “That could be potentially catastrophic to the
The 150-foot-tall rocket boosters are mounted on either
side of a shuttle’s external fuel tank and provide nearly all the tremendous
thrust needed to enter orbit. They are designed to fall away safely into the
ocean for later recovery by NASA.
COLUMBIA THEORY UNCHANGED
Board members said they do not believe the breakaway bolts
— which use explosive devices during the jettison to break the attachment —
contributed to the Columbia disaster. But they expressed concern that bolt
fragments could cause similarly fatal damage to another shuttle’s protective
tiles or panels on future missions.
The board said some radars during Columbia’s flight
detected an unusual item — possibly half a bolt — falling away from the
shuttle 126 seconds after liftoff, the same time its booster rockets jettisoned.
But officials stressed there was no evidence a bolt struck Columbia.
“We’re not changing our working scenario,” Barry
Investigators indicated they remain convinced that a chunk
of foam from the external tank smashed against Columbia’s left wing, loosening
a protective panel along the leading edge. That permitted searing temperatures
to penetrate the spacecraft during its fiery return 16 days later, melting key
structures aboard Columbia until it tumbled out of control at nearly 13,000
miles per hour. All seven astronauts died.
The explosive devices on the bolts sever the booster
rockets from the external tank within 30 milliseconds of the command to detonate
them. The procedure is exceedingly precise — and dangerous — because of
risks that one booster might detach before another and send the shuttle tumbling
off course or out of control.
FAILURE TO LEARN FROM MISTAKES
Earlier Thursday, some of America’s top space experts
told the investigative board that NASA has failed to learn important lessons
from past mistakes and should improve its oversight of shuttle contractors. But
they said declining budgets might not have contributed directly to the tragedy.
The 13-member Columbia Accident Investigation Board held
its final public hearing before it retreats behind closed doors to prepare its
formal report on the disaster. The board has indicated it wants to finish prior
to the August recess by lawmakers in Washington.
Marcia Smith, who studies the space program at the
Congressional Research Service, reviewed for the board the history of NASA’s
budget. But she cautioned that it would be difficult for investigators to
directly tie any decline in shuttle funding to the February tragedy. The
research service advises lawmakers on policy issues.
“It’s very difficult to tie this into events like the
Columbia tragedy,” she said. She added that it was “not clear that an
increased budget would have helped” NASA appreciates the risks that breakaway
insulating foam might damage shuttles on takeoff.
The budget for the shuttle approved by lawmakers during
the last decade peaked at $4.04 billion in 1993, according to congressional
researchers. It fell steadily until it dropped as low as $2.93 billion in 1998
and has gradually risen to $3.27 billion for fiscal 2002.
NASA CHIEF: ‘EXTREME’ MEASURES
Tests conducted by the board last week provided powerful
support for the theory that foam had cracked Columbia’s protective panel.
Investigators fired a 1.68-pound foam chunk at 525 mph toward a similar panel,
which cracked and was knocked out of alignment enough to create a dangerous gap
in a shuttle wing.
Because such a barely visible crack was enough to cause
the loss of Columbia and its seven astronauts, NASA engineers face “an extreme
challenge” as they develop plans for returning the shuttles to space, NASA
Administrator Sean O’Keefe said Wednesday.
“We’ve got to create an inspection regime for future
flights that will be extremely meticulous,” O’Keefe said.
When space shuttle flights resume, launches will be
limited to daylight hours, O’Keefe said. This will allow cameras at the
Kennedy Space Center to take high-resolution photos of the craft during its
ascent to orbit. During Columbia’s January launch, some cameras failed to
capture high-quality views of the speeding craft. Although there were pictures
of the foam insulation hitting the wing, their quality was too poor for
engineers to immediately calculate the extent of the damage.
O’Keefe also said that all but one of the anticipated
future shuttle flights will go to the international space station. The station
would provide a refuge for the astronauts and a platform to closely inspect any
suspected damage. The sole exception, he said, is a late 2004 flight planned to
maintain the Hubble Space Telescope. Shuttles that fly to the Hubble cannot also
fly to the space station.
Report on shuttle accident to slam NASA decisions,
By Michael Cabbage | Sentinel Space Editor
Posted June 6, 2003
-- NASA's poor risk management, questionable policy decisions and constant
budget battles were among the root causes of the shuttle Columbia accident,
according to an upcoming report by the board investigating the mishap.
detailed 10-page draft outline of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's
report obtained by the Orlando Sentinel presents a sweeping, hard-hitting
review of the technical, organizational and political factors that resulted in
America's second space-shuttle disaster. The report traces the accident's
causes from the program's origins in the late 1960s to Columbia's breakup over
central Texas on Feb. 1.
is intended to be the base line for a very serious public-policy debate on the
future of the safety of the shuttle program and its role in the manned space
flight program," retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman, the investigation
board's chairman, said recently.
report's outline suggests investigators will identify a debris strike on the
shuttle's left wing during launch as the "probable cause" that
triggered the mishap. However, as the 13-member board consistently has
pledged, the report goes far beyond an engineering analysis of Columbia's
final moments to examine the bigger institutional and historical issues that
allowed the disaster to occur.
of the issues covered in the outline come as no surprise after being discussed
repeatedly in the board's hearings and news conferences during the past four
months. Others, however, have received little public mention.
report remains a work in progress and some parts likely will change. But
according to a May revision of the report outline, major concerns include:
repeated debris strikes on the orbiters became an accepted risk over time.
system the National Aeronautics and Space Administration uses to identify,
track and dispose of in-flight problems.
breakdowns and the performance of shuttle managers during Columbia's flight.
pressures created by building and re-supplying the international space
turmoil caused by flip-flopping shuttle-program authority between the
agency's headquarters in Washington and Johnson Space Center in Houston.
indecision in recent years on whether to replace the fleet or upgrade it and
concerns the shuttle program was being "managed as if nearing its
budget pressures and the transfer of oversight responsibilities from NASA to
private contractors affected safety.
planned 10-chapter report -- described as "voluminous" by Gehman
-- will include a number of specific recommendations. The study also will
contain a section on general "conditions necessary for return to
flight" that discusses items such as management reforms and
re-certification of aging shuttle components to make sure they remain in
interviewing more than 250 witnesses, board members are relocating from
Houston to Washington as the investigation winds down and the writing picks
up. The target date for the report's release is July 24, the day before
Congress leaves on its summer recess.
believe it's attainable," Gehman said recently. "But if it turns
out to be too hard for us to do a good job, then we'll miss that goal. It's
much more important that we get it right."
In the beginning
report's first three chapters will largely be a straightforward narrative of
the origins of the shuttle program, events leading up to Columbia's launch
and the orbiter's final flight. The chapters set the stage for the rest of
1, titled "The Evolution Of The Space Shuttle," discusses how the
project "emerged from the post-Apollo space flight program, its design
tradeoffs resulting from political and budgetary decisions made in the early
1970s, its development, testing and initial flights, the Challenger accident
and the shuttle's current role."
report's second chapter describes preparations before liftoff. And Chapter
3, "Columbia's Final Flight," documents the shuttle's launch,
activities in orbit and re-entry.
report's next three chapters detail the board's findings on the direct,
contributing and root causes of the accident. The mechanics of Columbia's
breakup while returning to Earth are explained in Chapter 4, which begins
with a "statement of probable cause."
recent weeks, the board has adopted a scenario that says a breach in the
protective heat armor on the leading edge of Columbia's left wing allowed
blowtorch-like gases to destroy the shuttle as it re-entered Earth's
atmosphere. A chunk of foam estimated to weigh about 2 pounds broke off the
ship's external fuel tank and smacked into the leading edge 82 seconds after
Columbia's liftoff on Jan. 16.
far, investigators have been reluctant to conclude publicly that the foam
strike was the cause of that breach. That could be changing. A recent impact
test at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio appears to suggest the
strike could have created an opening between the reinforced carbon-carbon
panels that line the wing's leading edge.
think it moves us a significant step toward establishing that as an
initiating event," board member Scott Hubbard said Wednesday.
more definitive impact test scheduled for Thursday was canceled because of
bad weather in San Antonio. It has been rescheduled for today.
report rules out other possible causes considered early in the
investigation. Among them: Shuttle system failures. Willful damage. Crew
error. Columbia's onboard science laboratory. Micrometeorites and
space-debris strikes. An unusual re-entry triggered by a rough wing surface
on the shuttle.
key part of the report is Chapter 5. According to the outline, the chapter
is "a discussion of the factors that combined to destroy Columbia"
beyond the direct causes that tore the ship apart.
factors primarily are NASA decisions made before and during the 16-day
mission. The beginning of the chapter deals with the Mission Management
Team's performance and the group's quick dismissal of concerns about the
the report critiques engineers' questionable use of a computer database
called Crater to predict Columbia's damage. The section also recounts the
internal e-mail debate among engineers on the foam impact and their
unsuccessful requests for images of Columbia in orbit using spy satellites
or military telescopes. This communications breakdown led the board to issue
an interim recommendation April 17 asking that NASA reach agreements with
intelligence agencies to make such photos a standard requirement for future
seems to have evolved is that higher-level decision-makers came to the
conclusion that there wasn't a safety-of-flight issue, in part, based on an
analysis done by analysts who sort of wanted the pictures," board
member Steve Wallace said recently. "It's a difficult and frustrating
story to try to put together."
chapter subsection, titled "The Machine Was Talking, but NASA Failed to
Separate Signals From Noise," addresses the pivotal issue of how
managers became comfortable with events once considered problems.
foam strikes on the orbiter occurred almost every launch and violated flight
rules. Nevertheless, missions continued as NASA officials grew confident
over time that the impacts were only a maintenance issue and no threat to
heard NASA use the terminology 'in family' and 'out of family,' " said
Air Force Gen. Kenneth Hess, a member of the investigation board.
"Well, the family of foam loss just kept getting bigger and bigger. So
you never got to a point where you could make a real hard distinction that
something was unusual."
outline draws a comparison to the 1986 Challenger accident, when shuttle
managers ignored concerns about a critical seal in the ship's solid rocket
boosters and proceeded with the launch. The comparison is accompanied by an
analysis of NASA's system for identifying, tracking and dealing with
chapter ends with a discussion of shuttle processing issues, including
questions about how the ships are certified as ready for launch. NASA's
inability to gauge the effects of shuttle aging is examined, along with the
lack of nondestructive tests to adequately measure wear on the
heat-resistant panels that line the wings' leading edges. The board already
has made an interim recommendation to NASA to improve those inspections.
underlying historical and institutional problems that led to Columbia's
breakup are outlined in Chapter 6, "Root Causes of the Accident."
chapter goes back to the shuttle's birth in the 1960s to trace the
political, budgetary and organizational pressures that shaped the program. A
common thread is the never-ending drive to slash the shuttle's budget.
Challenger, budget pressures forced concessions in the shuttle's design,
limited the number of orbiters that were built and prompted an unrealistic
goal of 24 flights per year. Since Challenger, budget issues have reduced
the program's spending power by 40 percent during the past decade, led to
shuttle job cuts and limited planned upgrades to the fleet and its
not going to tell you that our conclusion necessarily will be that you need
more money," Gehman said. "But we clearly are going to attempt to
have specific, direct and unequivocal recommendations on the relationship of
budgets and what it costs to operate a program like this."
chapter also examines the relationship between NASA and shuttle contractors.
subject of particular interest is whether NASA's 1996 shuttle-operations
contract with United Space Alliance -- a partnership between aerospace
giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin -- helped erode safety by offering
incentives for meeting schedules and cutting costs. In the process, some
safety checks were shifted from government to industry. Others were
two issues here," Gehman said. "One is contractor performance,
which we are looking at, along with all the other performance matters. . . .
The second is whether or not the contract is suitable for the purpose of
6 analyzes three other major issues as well: turmoil caused by the shift of
shuttle management from Washington to Johnson Space Center in 1996, then
back to Washington in 2002; the creation of a "Shuttle-International
Space Station Complex" and concerns that station resupply duties
"prompt reluctance" to delay shuttle launches to the outpost; and
work-force problems caused by transferring shuttle jobs from Southern
California to Texas and Florida.
report devotes a full chapter to how NASA manages risk.
7 -- "Managing Risky Technology" -- compares shuttle operations to
other high-risk enterprises, including offshore oil rigs, aircraft carriers
and nuclear reactors. The outline draws a parallel between the aging
Concorde supersonic jet and the shuttle.
the shuttle," the outline says, "[the Concorde is] a small fleet
of old aircraft that are emblematic of national pride."
of the chapter scrutinizes NASA's Safety and Mission Assurance division,
including its budget, size and independence. The section also investigates
how management decisions and technical information are communicated up and
down the chain of command, and whether NASA headquarters is
"increasingly disengaged from the shuttle program's technical
7 concludes by examining if NASA has learned anything from countless
reports, studies and shuttle assessments in the past.
of the report's final three chapters focus on the future. Chapter 8, "A
Look Ahead," discusses conditions necessary for return to flight, as
well as whether a more realistic method of assessing shuttle safety or a new
space vehicle are needed.
9 contains board observations gleaned during the investigation that aren't
necessarily related to the accident. Those observations include paperwork
lapses in certifying flight controllers and work-force morale issues.
Chapter 10, the final section, summarizes the report's findings and
report will give shuttle managers an unprecedented road map for the future
that goes well beyond the specifics of the Columbia accident. How far NASA
and Congress go in following that road map remains to be seen.
can do NASA and the shuttle program a world of good if we take a very broad
and complex view of this and go after multiple causes and multiple flaws and
shore them all up," Gehman said. "We would not be doing the nation
a service if we only got 40 percent of the problem."
Michael Cabbage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -
what could be a breakthrough in the Columbia accident inquiry, foam shot at a
fiberglass mock-up of a space shuttle wing knocked loose a seal — the same
type of piece that investigators believe was damaged during liftoff.
"We're not drawing any conclusions," said Air Force Lt. Col. Woody
Woodyard, a spokesman for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. "We've
got to analyze the data and evaluate all the data before we can draw any
But he described Thursday's result as "significant."
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board suspects a seal along the leading
edge of Columbia's left wing was damaged when struck by a chunk of foam
insulation that broke off the fuel tank during launch.
In the first and only shot of the day at Southwest Research Institute in San
Antonio, a 1.67-pound piece of real space shuttle foam was fired at the
fiberglass leading edge at 533 mph. The foam blasted through the 33-foot barrel
of a nitrogen-pressurized gun toward pretend panel No. 6 on the leading edge,
tilted at a 20-degree angle.
Upon impact, the adjacent seal lifted and pulled toward panel No. 7, leaving
an opening about 22 inches long, Woodyard said. The width of the gap ranged from
the thickness of a dime to more than a quarter-inch.
All the parts in the abbreviated leading edge were fiberglass and came from
the never-launched shuttle prototype Enterprise (news
- websites), which is housed at the Smithsonian Institution (news
- websites) in Washington, Woodyard said. In highly anticipated testing in June,
researchers plan to shoot foam at real carbon-composite wing pieces that
actually flew in space.
Fiberglass is about 2 1/2 times more resilient than the carbon composite
material that makes up real wing panels and seals, Woodyard said. That would
suggest that a real panel or seal would have been even more damaged by a foam
Thursday's result was within impact predictions, Woodyard said. Earlier this
month, researchers in San Antonio fired foam at the silica-glass thermal tiles
that cover much of the space shuttles, but little if any damage resulted —
also no surprise.
On Wednesday, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said a mystery object
that floated away from the shuttle on Flight Day 2 back in January almost
certainly was half of a leading-edge seal. Such a long, narrow slit would be
enough to let in the scorching gases of atmospheric re-entry, and that hole
likely would have grown as the shuttle continued its descent, enough to cause
its breakup over Texas on Feb. 1.
All seven astronauts were killed, just minutes short of their Florida
The board's chairman, retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., has been reluctant
to pin the blame on the foam strike, saying he lacks hard proof. He also has
stressed that the impact tests in San Antonio will show whether foam could
damage a shuttle wing — not whether it actually did. But others on the
13-member panel are convinced the foam led to the shuttle's destruction.
A final report by the board is expected by the end of July.
Retired Adm. Harold Gehman Jr.,
who is heading the investigation into the shuttle Columbia disaster, doesn't
seem to understand the implications of his obsession with secrecy in
conducting the probe.
So we'll state it in unmistakable
His ongoing refusal to make all
testimony available to Congress, the press and public is reckless and a move
that is severely harming his credibility and that of the investigation.
It is a policy that must end, and
now, lest further damage be done and the final report of the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board, which is due this summer, be held in serious doubt and
raise inevitable questions about a coverup.
Gehman's position on the issue
makes absolutely no sense.
After an outcry for a
better-balanced board, he purposely put five civilian members of the panel on
NASA's payroll -- at pay rates up to $134,000 a year -- to take advantage of a
government provision that would allow the board to conduct its business in
So far, confidentiality has been
offered to more than 200 witnesses under the claim that it's needed to
encourage people to come forward and tell the truth about the accident as well
as problems throughout NASA's shuttle program.
When members of Congress recently
learned of this and said they wanted access to the testimony, Gehman said he
wouldn't turn it over and arrogantly vowed the transcripts would "never
see the light of day."
Now, he says he's willing to
compromise and allow some members of Congress to view the material, a tactic
that has gained the ear of Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, whose district includes
Kennedy Space Center and who should know better than to bend on this
There can be no compromise when it
comes to openness in government, and fortunately Sen. Bill Nelson,
D-Tallahassee, understands that in this matter.
Nelson, who flew aboard Columbia
in 1986, says he will seek full disclosure of the testimony, even if Congress
has to use its subpoena power. In doing so, he rightly noted that the more
openness there is, "the more the truth is going to be there."
He added the Gehman report is
"not going to be credible with the American people unless it (the
testimony) is made public."
Gehman's penchant for secrecy
comes from his military service, during which he had a distinguished career
that included probing the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
But Gehman is a civilian now and
this is a civilian investigation. He must be made to understand that his
stonewalling on the testimony is wrong and cannot stand.
Instead of fighting Congress and
ignoring the public's right to know, he should recall how the highly respected
Rogers Commission investigated the shuttle Challenger disaster 17 years ago.
The commission called witnesses,
swore them in under oath, heard testimony in public and released findings.
Nothing less would do then, because the stakes for NASA's future were so high,
and nothing less will do now because the stakes are even higher.
Columbia's remains get last
look before final report written
Saturday, May 17, 2003 Posted: 6:28 PM EDT(2228
CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) --With the last truckload of Columbia wreckage delivered, the
accident investigation board looked over the broken and charred remains of
the space shuttle Saturday, paying especially close attention to what little
is left of the left wing.
hole along the wing's leading edge doomed the spaceship during its dive
atmosphere 31/2 months ago.
Burned electronic units from the space
shuttle Columbia sit on a shelf at the
Kennedy Space Center.
saw the things today which we believe are compelling pieces of evidence that
tell us how the heat got into the vehicle and where the flaw started,"
said the chief investigator, retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr..
he and other board members felt it was their duty to see the wreckage one
last time as a group, before winding up their investigation and writing
their final report. He hopes to have the report completed by the end of
are a number of pieces of debris out here which are extraordinarily
significant that contribute directly to our investigation, and we wanted to
see if, as a jury, we came to the same conclusion that our experts
have," said Gehman, standing in a Kennedy Space Center hangar filled
with shuttle wreckage.
he sees no reason why NASA cannot resume shuttle flights, although he would
not estimate when.
board has not come across any showstoppers that, in our minds, would prevent
the shuttle from returning to flight," he said. "Now, how high is
the stack of return-to-flight items going to be when we get finished, I
can't tell you right now. But right now, it looks to me like it's
five others on the 13-member board observed up close the spray of molten
aluminum and small drops of melted metal on certain wing parts, and the
knifelike edges of the wing panel remnants near the spot where the deadly
heat penetrated. The board suspects the hole was created by a chunk of foam
insulation that broke off the fuel tank at liftoff and slammed into that
very part of the wing.
reconstruction team has put back together, as best it could, the leading
edge of the left wing, using 3-D plexiglass molds and scraps of salvaged
carbon panels. Tiles from the underside of the wing are displayed on a long
wooden table, like a giant, burned jigsaw puzzle missing many of its pieces.
Other shuttle parts are stacked on metal racks or flat wooden crates, or in
work that was done here turned out to be more significant than we thought it
would have been at the beginning," Gehman said.
84,000 pieces of Columbia have been recovered and transported to the space
center from Texas and Louisiana. The total weight -- nearly 85,000 pounds --
represents 38 percent of the shuttle. NASA had expected to collect no more
than 20 percent, said launch director Mike Leinbach, who's heading the space
agency's reconstruction team.
has shocked a lot of people we got this much back," Leinbach said,
adding that the variety of damage is also amazing.
see the nose landing gear and the tires are not in too bad of shape. And
then those boxes on the back wall, each one of those boxes could have a
thousand pieces no bigger than a piece of paper," Leinbach said.
"It's very difficult to put in words how you feel when you look at the
variety of the damage that Columbia sustained, and how well she put up a
the wreckage will be available to researchers interested in re-entering
hypersonic spacecraft. Most of the crew cabin will be off-limits, however,
because of the high emotions and sensitivity surrounding those pieces,
Leinbach said. All seven astronauts were strapped into their seats in the
cabin, when the shuttle broke apart over Texas on February 1.
minutes, and Columbia would have landed on the Kennedy Space Center runway,
just a few minutes' walk from the hangar that now holds the ship's remains.
Copyright 2003 The Associated
Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Clearest video yet of foam strike as tests get
underway BY WILLIAM HARWOOD STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS
"SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION Posted: May 13,
Frames from the
newly enhanced video just prior to (top) and after (below) a piece
of foam from the external fuel tank appears to strike Columbia's
wing. Photo: CAIB.
Columbia Accident Investigation Board today released the clearest video
yet showing a tumbling piece of foam insulation slamming into the
shuttle's left wing during launch Jan. 16.
Investigators say the enhanced video, along with ongoing mathematical
modeling, indicates the foam struck the wing at some 529 mph, imparting up
to a ton of force across an area of the leading edge measuring roughly six
by 12 inches.
Investigators believe the foam impact likely cracked or breached one of
the reinforced carbon carbon panels making up the leading edge of the left
wing or damaged a so-called T-seal between two adjacent panels. Whatever
the exact mechanism, investigators believe Columbia began its re-entry
Feb. 1 with a breach at or near RCC panel 8 or perhaps near the T-seal
between panels 8 and 9. Super-heated air burned its way into the wing
through this presumed breach, leading to the shuttle's eventual
CAIB and NASA investigators are gearing up for a crucial series of
tests at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, early
next month to help pin down whether the foam impact was, in fact, a "root
cause" of the disaster.
Five initial test runs already have been carried out shooting foam
"bullets" at heat shield tiles on a landing gear door taken from the
prototype shuttle Enterprise. The tests were set up early on in the
investigation, before engineers knew the impact had actually occurred at
the leading edge.
In a teleconference with reporters today, CAIB member Scott Hubbard
said only minimal tile damage resulted from the initial impact tests using
foam bullets, weighing between 1.2 and 2.5 pounds, impacting at angles
between 5 and 13 degrees. But the tests have helped verify the predictions
of two computer models and confirm the actual impact happened at or very
near the leading edge.
Early next month, engineers will begin firing foam at a high-fidelity
mockup of a shuttle leading edge, complete with RCC panels taken from the
shuttle Discovery that have flown more than two dozen times. The leading
edge simulator will be heavily instrumented with more than 100 channels of
data charting the stresses and strains imparted by the impacts.
The foam will be fired from a 30-foot-long nitrogen-gas canon with a
rectangular bore measuring 5.5 inches by 11.5 inches. Foam bullets similar
in size to the actual debris that hit Columbia will be fired at the
simulator at velocities of up to 775 feet per second, or 528.5 mph. Six
high-speed cameras, some capable of recording 7,000 frames per second,
will photograph the impacts in exquisite ultra slow-motion detail,
permitting precise determination of impact velocities and angles.
"All the experts looking at all the data have begun to home in on a
sweet spot," Hubbard said of work to determine the size of the foam debris
that struck Columbia. "The current best guess, and this may change a
little bit over the next week or so, is an impact projectile of about
1,240 cubic inches traveling at about 775 feet per second."
One wild card is the contribution of the foam's rotational velocity. Up
until now, engineers have calculated the force imparted by the impact
based on the foam's straight-line velocity. But Hubbard said the debris
was tumbling wildly and that regardless of the direction of the tumble,
the rotational velocity must be factored in.
"A major element has been to include the rotational velocity," he said.
"This is something that had personally been gnawing at me in looking at
the video, of how this piece was rotating. It seemed to me to be a source
of additional energy. ... Some preliminary calculations show that we may
need to either adjust the velocity or the angle to compensate for this."
Some outside observers worried the initial test results, showing only
minimal damage to the landing gear door tiles, might indicate the foam
would have little effect on the RCC panels, leaving NASA without a
clear-cut root cause for the disaster.
But Hubbard said today there is little or no data on how RCC panels
respond to impacts. And unlike the tiles, which are supported across their
full length and width, RCC panels are only supported at their edges, by
the T-seal. The central, unsupported area is just a third of an inch
"The difficulty is in modeling this curved surface," he said of the
U-shaped RCC panels. "There was some initial ... analysis that was done on
an impact of a piece of foam of the 2-pound variety traveling at 700 feet
per second against a flat plate (of carbon composite material). What that
seems to indicate - and I really underscore 'seems' - is that it should
break the panel.
"But I don't want to go any further than that because that's a flat
panel and not a curved surface. As we've learned from doing this first set
of tests, getting the tumbling, the angle and all of that just right is a
tricky business. So I don't think at this point we know exactly what we
might find. That's why we're doing the tests."
The impact angle chosen for the tests is especially critical. That
angle is measured relative to the flat bottom of the wing, not relative to
the tangent of the curve at the point of impact as common sense might
dictate. Relative to the belly of the orbiter, impact angles for debris
striking the lower side of the leading edge RCC panels could range from 10
to 20 degrees or so.
Velocity also is critical. As every high school physics student learns,
an object's kinetic energy is one half its mass multiplied by the square
of its velocity. While the mass is low in this case, the velocity is high
and that is the term being squared.
"Very light things, when you accelerate them to very high velocities,
carry an enormous amount of force and the types of forces we're dealing
with here, with the foam size and velocities we're talking about, even at
these relatively shallow angles, are something close to a ton of total
force, upwards of 2,000 pounds of total force delivered in relatively
small area of about 5 or 6 inches by a foot," Hubbard said.
Trying to extrapolate the results of the initial tile impacts to the
RCC panels is not possible because "it's a little bit apples and oranges,"
Hubbard said. While engineers understand how tiles respond to impacts, no
such database exists for carbon composites.
"The tiles have a certain crush force that we now understand fairly
well based on all the earlier tests," Hubbard said. "We don't have that
same level of information yet for aged RCC. One case (tile), you have a
glass-like material that is very sensitive to the angle of the impact and
that angle, I feel almost certain, has something to do with how the edge
of the foam digs into it. If the leading edge were at 20 degrees or so and
made out of tiles, I think we would see a substantial amount of damage.
The fact is, that angle that we saw, the angle that exists on the bottom
of the orbiter, is only 5 or 10 degrees. That's one story.
"A completely different story is the RCC panel, which is only supported
on the ends and is maybe a third of an inch thick or so and has quite
different material properties. It will probably show some angular
dependence. The smallest angle of intersection that we've measured is
about 10 degrees and it goes up to well over 20 degrees.
"At that range of angles, you transfer a lot of force and that amount
of force could be, we think, enough to break it. But we won't know for
sure until we do the tests."
Investigators have not yet decided exactly where they will aim their
foam bullets at the high-fidelity leading edge simulator. Because each
strike will affect the simulator in some fashion, causing an unknown
amount of damage, only a limited number of firings will be possible.
The current schedule calls for shooting at panels 5 through 7 beginning
the week of June 2. Panels 8 through 10 will be hit starting the week of
"At this point I'm fairly well convinced we're going to hit panel 6
pretty much in the middle of the panel," Hubbard said. "I'm looking at two
or three options for the panel 8-9 tests. One is down at the bottom of the
panel. The other though is ... the T-seal area (between panels 8 and 9).
And I haven't made, nor have we agreed with NASA yet, exactly the best
place to put that impact and that's one of the things we're going to be
looking at in the next two weeks or so."
Harold Gehman, who is in charge of investigating the shuttle Columbia
accident, must be having flashbacks to his secretive investigation of the USS
Cole terrorist attack.
Evidently, he also doesn't think the public should be in on his investigation
into the Columbia disaster.
Gehman, appointed by NASA, thinks nobody other than his panel should know all
the details of the Columbia report.
We're not to worry our pretty little heads about what transpired in all those
secret interviews with NASA officials. We're just to assume the panel asked
the right questions of the right people, reached the right conclusions and
made the right recommendations.
At least we're not alone.
Gehman also put Congress on his do-not-need-to-know list. Why not just move the entire proceeding over to Guantanamo?
I don't doubt the Admiral's integrity. I do question whether a military man
used to working in secrecy should be the information gatekeeper for a very
How did all this come about?
NASA has been quietly paying the civilian board members on Gehman's panel.
This allows them to be classified as government employees and conduct business
If you recall, these are the same civilian board members that were put on the
panel to ensure its independence and credibility. But if you are getting up to
$2,500 a week, it raises questions about your willingness to bite the hand
that writes the check.
There was skepticism about Gehman's panel as soon as NASA Administrator Sean
O'Keefe formed it. Critics, including many in Congress, raised the question of independence and
objectivity. O'Keefe and Gehman answered by changing the charter more than
once and by bringing in outside experts.
The criticism waned. But now comes this display of arrogance.
Not only will the public be excluded from interviews of key NASA officials, it
also will be excluded from details of those interviews when the panel's report
on the Columbia disaster is released.
I could understand it if there were some compelling need for secrecy, as was
the case with Gehman's investigation of the USS Cole. But embarrassing
mistakes by NASA managers hardly qualify as state secrets.
The public paid for the shuttle.
The public saw its seven astronauts killed when the orbiter disintegrated.
The public turned out in droves to help NASA recover debris.
The public is paying for the investigation.
The public will pay the billions this accident eventually will cost.
Given all that, I think the public has a right to know what happened. We
should know the involvement of every top NASA official associated with
Columbia from its launch to its demise.
We should have names and versions of events, not necessarily in the context of
assigning blame but to understand what happened and create a historical
The idea that secrecy is the only way to guarantee NASA managers will talk
openly is nonsense.
You put people under oath and you ask them questions. If they don't answer the
questions, you remove them from their jobs and, if need be, you prosecute
That formula worked well during the investigation of Challenger.
Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or
MIAMI: Claims of a cover-up are surrounding the Columbia space
shuttle tragedy – after it emerged supposedly independent civilians on the
board probing the disaster are on the NASA payroll.
The five were
added to reassure Congress and the public the board would be fully
independent. But they are being paid $250,000 a year to take advantage of
rules allowing boards composed solely of "federal employees" to conduct
business in secret.
Yesterday public-policy critics said the salaries call into question
whether the board is truly independent from the agency it is
"Three words – conflict of interest," said Steven Aftergood, who heads
the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American
Scientists. "The upshot is, we don't have an independent investigating
board. This means NASA is investigating itself. This defeats the whole
purpose of having an independent inquiry."
If the civilians had not been hired by NASA, a federal law would have
required the investigating board to meet publicly, justify any closed-door
sessions and keep transcripts and minutes that would ultimately become
Each of the 13 board members is now classified as a federal employee.
Besides the five civilians and chairman, other members include four
active-duty military officers, two federal transportation officials and a
NASA executive. And as a result, the board says it is legally permitted to
meet in secret and promise "confidentiality" to NASA employees and others
among the more than 200 individuals it has interviewed.
Last Tuesday, board chairman Harold Gehman said that transcripts of
these interviews will be kept secret from the general public, and even
from Congress. Said Gehman, a retired admiral who is being paid at the
rate of $250,000 per year, "Those are never going to see the light of
He elaborated in a prepared statement Friday night: "The board
determined it could provide a much deeper and richer review of NASA
policies and procedures if it employed standard safety investigation
procedures, which are incompatible with (open-government) provisions."
The statement did not respond to a question about his pay.
Gehman's insistence on confidentiality has rankled members of Congress,
who say the board's report – now expected in July – must be accompanied by
the documents that drove the conclusions. And "What they did was hire
outsiders and convert them into an internal board. It's just baffling."
Each of Gehman's five civilian board members insists that accepting
money from NASA has in no way compromised the investigation. And indeed,
board members and Gehman have been publicly critical of the space agency
and its management "culture," questioning whether it has paid adequate
attention to maintenance of the aging shuttle fleet and tolerated
potentially unsafe conditions.
But one of those five, former astronaut Sally Ride, acknowledges that
the public may see the board differently.
"I don't see it an issue for the Board members to be on the federal
payroll – this board, unlike most pro-bono government committees, is
essentially a full-time job (for which people should receive some
compensation)," Ride wrote in an e-mail to the Orlando Sentinel last week.
"But one might ask whether it should be NASA's payroll."
man indicted in theft of toilet from shuttle debris
By CHRISTINE S. DIAMOND
Cox News Service
May 11, 2003
-- A federal grand jury on Wednesday indicted a Texas man for stealing a toilet
from the space shuttle Columbia.
Williams, 27, of Sabine County, is the fifth person indicted in East Texas for
stealing debris from the shuttle, which disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1. He
was indicted on a charge of theft of government property.
The technical name of
the piece Williams is accused of withholding from NASA's recovery efforts is
"compactor tank assembly."
spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said he could not comment on how
authorities learned of the alleged theft.
Williams also was
indicted by a grand jury meeting in Beaumont on a charge of a felon in
possession of a firearm, a Winchester 30.30 rifle. According to the U.S.
Attorney's Office, Williams was convicted of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle
in Galveston County in 1995.
If convicted, Williams
faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each
Sheriff's offices in
Sabine and San Augustine counties, along with the FBI, NASA and the Office of
the Inspector General, are investigating this case. Assistant U.S. Attorney
Malcolm Bales, with the Lufkin office, is prosecuting the case.
Attorney's Office and NASA remind everyone that all debris is United States
government property and is critical to the investigation of the shuttle
accident," a U.S. Attorney's Office press release states. "Any and all
debris from the accident is to be left alone and reported to government
authorities. Unauthorized persons found in possession of accident debris will be
prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
Two suspects previously
charged with stealing shuttle debris, Merrie Hipp of Henderson and Stephen F.
Austin State University student Bradley Gaudet, are set to stand trial on May 13
in Lufkin before Chief U.S. District Judge John Hannah Jr. Robert Hagan II, a
Harrison County constable, and Jeffrey D. Arriola, a former Angelina County
sheriff's deputy, are set to stand trial May 19, in Beaumont.
Tests conducted in the past week to determine the impact force of loose
insulation on the space shuttle's thermal protection system have produced no
visual evidence of major damage, sources said Friday.
The tests are intended to reveal whether insulation that came loose from
shuttle Columbia's fuel tank could have punctured the spacecraft's left wing and
triggered its fatal Feb. 1 breakup, a leading theory that emerged soon after the
The results of the first salvos -- aimed at thermal tiles like those found on
the landing gear door of the Columbia -- still are under evaluation. They don't
necessarily indicate what researchers will find when they begin foam impact
tests on reinforced carbon-carbon panels like those found on the leading edge of
Columbia's left wing, a source close to the Columbia Accident Investigation
Board said Friday.
"We didn't predict high damage to the (underside and landing gear)
tile," a source familiar with the San Antonio testing said Friday. "I
don't think the results so far are unexpected. I don't think we expected any
The investigative panel, which is sponsoring the impact testing as part of
its inquiry into the causes of the shuttle tragedy, believes the breakup was
precipitated by a breach in the leading edge of the left wing. But the 13-member
board earlier this week said is it not ready to declare the foam blow as the
cause of the damage that triggered a thermal and structural failure of the
"Even if the foam testing does break the (carbon panels), that doesn't
prove that that's what happened. It just proves that it could have
happened," board Chairman Harold Gehman said Tuesday. "If we do major
damage to the leading edge, that still doesn't prove it. That just proves it's
The board source said the impact tests had nothing to do with the panel's
Foam impact testing on the reinforced carbon-carbon panels at the San Antonio
facility is expected to start in early June, though some effort is under way to
move up the evaluations.
The tests -- being conducted at the Southwest Research Institute in San
Antonio using a nitrogen gas-fueled cannon -- aim to reconstruct the conditions
that Columbia was subject to when it lifted off on Jan. 16.
Within 82 seconds of the launch, a chunk of foam insulation from the forward
region of the fuel tank peeled away and struck the underside of the shuttle's
Initially, NASA mission managers believed the impact -- then believed to have
occurred on the underside of the wing near or against the left landing gear door
-- did not represent a safety hazard, though a number of engineers questioned
that assessment internally.
In the weeks after the accident, the Gehman panel suspected the fatal breakup
was caused by a two-to-three pound chunk of foam insulation that struck the
underside of the wing, possibly damaging a vulnerable landing gear door seal.
Through subsequent analysis of film and video of the liftoff recorded by
ground-based cameras, experts determined the foam hit the underside of the wing
at its leading edge.
The impact zone appears to have included some of the 22 U-shaped
carbon-composite panels that lined the leading edge of Columbia's left wing,
specifically panels five through nine -- a region near the fuselage. Data from a
recovered flight recorder and telemetry radioed directly to Mission Control at
Johnson Space Center before the breakup suggest the actual wing breach occurred
in panels eight or nine, the board said earlier this week.
The incomplete results of the impact tests on the underside of the wing are
not considered an indication of what will happen when foam samples are fired at
leading edge carbon panels, an investigative source said Friday.
At 22 years, Columbia was the oldest of NASA's four shuttles, and
investigators believe deterioration of the carbon panels or other wing
components over the years may have weakened the materials enough to make them
susceptible to damage from the kind of hit the shuttle took Jan. 16.
One of the issues investigators have uncovered is an internal oxidation, or
corrosion, of the carbon panels caused by a zinc oxide paint primerused
on the shuttle's launch pads at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The tests slated for San Antonio next month will include older carbon panels
flown on other space shuttles.
NASA never studied debris
risks Earlier breakup would have exposed
3 times the people
HOUSTON -- A 3-foot-wide steel
ball slammed onto the runway at the Nacogdoches airport.
Another hunk of shuttle Columbia ripped through the roof of a local
dentist's office, which might have been filled with people if it were not
a Saturday morning.
And a 3-by-4-foot metal slab crashed into a bank parking lot near a
In all, the mangled fragments of the shuttle that rained down on mostly
rural east Texas on Feb. 1 weighed about 80,000 pounds. Some pieces were
so small they may never be found; others were so large that people inside
NASA were amazed nobody on the ground was killed or maimed.
It could have been much worse.
A Florida Today analysis shows NASA narrowly skirted what could have
been an unprecedented disaster on the ground: Raining debris on thousands
of people and homes in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth.
The computer analysis of debris field maps, flight trajectory data and
U.S. Census records shows that had the spaceship broken up less than one
minute earlier -- roughly 130 miles to the west -- nearly three times as
many people and homes would have been exposed to falling wreckage.
Yet, in 22 years of shuttle flights, NASA has never studied where
wreckage would fall during a re-entry catastrophe -- the kind of analysis
the U.S. Air Force routinely does for space launches and that the agency
typically does before it lets unmanned spacecraft fall back to Earth.
The Florida Today evaluation shows that the 25-mile-wide, and
215-mile-long zone where most of the debris fell in east Texas contained
about 216,000 people and 87,000 homes. The biggest population center along
the way: Nacogdoches, a town with about 30,000 residents.
But a break-up about a minute earlier would have dropped hot, heavy
debris onto an area with about 632,000 people and 248,000 homes. That
includes the south suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth, a sprawling area packed
with busy thoroughfares, churches, schools, neighborhoods and shopping
Also along the shuttle's flight path that Saturday morning: The San
Francisco bay area, Las Vegas and Albuquerque, N.M. The ship broke apart
before it was to fly over areas near New Orleans, Tampa and Orlando on its
way to Kennedy Space Center.
Why not study potential wreckage patterns?
"I think it's probably because they didn't want to contemplate it
breaking up," said Lou Ullian, former chief safety officer for the U.S.
Air Force's Eastern Range, which among other things studies potential
fallout from failed shuttle and rocket launches. "They didn't think it
The probability of death and destruction on the ground would have
escalated if wreckage had fallen over more densely populated areas, said
William Ailor of The Aerospace Corp., one of the world's leading experts
on debris from re-entering spacecraft.
The 1986 Challenger disaster and a long history of spectacular
government and commercial rocket explosions have fostered the perception
that the launch is the riskiest part of a space flight.
To date, however, three of four fatal spaceflight accidents --
including two Russian Soyuz descents in 1967 and 1971 -- have come during
failed descents to Earth. Seven astronauts and four cosmonauts were killed
during those mishaps.
The hazards posed by a shuttle's fiery plunge back through the
atmosphere were pointed out in a 1995 risk assessment done for NASA by
Science Applications International Corp.
The NASA contractor noted the re-entry and landing phases of a shuttle
flight account for 40 percent of the risk during a mission.
Ranking possible causes of a catastrophe by their likelihood, the
company said five of the top 25 mission risks involved failure of the
shuttle's thermal protection system. Investigators now believe that system
of tiles, thermal blankets and reinforced carbon panels failed during
Columbia's Feb. 1 re-entry, allowing gases as hot as 3,000 degrees to bore
into the aluminum structure and rip the vehicle apart.
"A surprising result of this study was that the risk of descent may be
on the same order of magnitude as ascent," the analysis concluded. "But
the short time under which risk is realized during ascent makes it much
To date, the agency has not mapped potential debris footprints during a
shuttle re-entry accident or the risk to unwitting residents on the
The reason: the agency focuses its risk reduction efforts on making
certain shuttle orbiters are safe enough to protect astronaut crews during
re-entry, NASA safety chief Bryan O'Connor said.
"And so what our assessment says is that if this thing is safe enough
to fly human beings in for an entry and a landing, then we feel that
that's adequate safety for the public that's underneath the flight path,"
the former astronaut said.
Perhaps the closest examination of such a scenario came before the 1989
shuttle launch of NASA'splutonium-powered Galileo spacecraft, which was
sent on a mission to study Jupiter and its moons.
Completed in 1988, the study considered what would happen to the
spacecraft, and its controversial power source, if a failure in flight
prompted an "uncontrolled" re-entry of the shuttle.
The study assumed the orbiter would remain mostly intact, but would
tumble out of control, with the Galileo spacecraft and its upper stage
booster popping out of the shuttle's cargo bay as the ship broke up.
Florida Today obtained a copy of the study. It does not address the
potential for ground casualties or injuries from falling shuttle debris.
Columbia's re-entry trajectory was a rarity, one dictated by launching
into a particular orbit to maximize data collection during Earth
Almost all planned shuttle missions in the future are to be launched to
the International Space Station. Those ships would typically take one of
two routes back to NASA's primary shuttle landing site at Kennedy Space
A route that passes over Seattle and cities across the nation's
heartland on the way to KSC.
A path that crosses over Central
America near the Yucatan Peninsula before heading over the Gulf of Mexico
on the way to its base in Brevard County.
The latter would minimize the number of populated areas the shuttle
flies over, but also would reduce flexibility for the shuttle program.
"It's not like you have a lot of choices," Ailor said. "You're dealing
with orbits and landing opportunities that force you into certain
trajectories. It could be very limiting to say you can't fly over any
Another option: Landing shuttles at a back-up site at Edwards Air Force
Base in California. But most routes to the base in the Mojave Desert cross
the Los Angeles area. And landing in California comes at a cost.
NASA typically spends nearly $1 million to ferry orbiters from
California to Florida piggy-back on modified 747 jumbo jets. The
cross-country trips pose their own problems. They expose the spacecraft to
bad weather and run the risk that a shuttle could fall off its carrier
over populated areas.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, meanwhile, will consider the
risk of re-entry trajectories over populated areas before publishing its
report in July.
The board has a space debris expert from the Federal Aviation
Administration checking into what's necessary to thoroughly analyze the
trajectory options. Ultimately, the board must decide whether it's wise,
or necessary, to do an exhaustive study and make specific recommendations.
Instead, board members said a more general observation is likely --
suggesting NASA assess the risks of falling shuttle wreckage and study
options for re-entry flight paths that avoid heavily-populated areas.
One board member, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hess, said debris pictures on TV
likely were sobering enough that NASA's already working on that.
"It's so dad-gum obvious," Hess said.
NASA, meanwhile, is waiting to hear from the accident board.
"We obviously are concerned about
public safety," NASA's O'Connor said. "We are also waiting to see if the
accident board will give us any advice in this area because I know they're
looking at this, and I just can't prejudge what's going to come out of all
Lawmakers and the board investigating the Columbia space
shuttle disaster are locked in a dispute over congressional demands for access
to information gleaned from hundreds of "privileged interviews" that
investigators have conducted with NASA officials, engineers and others directly
involved in the failed mission.
Although the board has conducted nine public hearings into the
Feb. 1 accident that killed the seven crew members, the most sensitive testimony
about NASA decision making and management practices has been taken behind closed
doors. Board Chairman Harold W. Gehman Jr., a retired admiral, has said that he
is more concerned about pinpointing the causes of the accident and recommending
corrective changes than in publicly pointing a finger of blame.
But key Republicans and Democrats on the House Science
Committee said yesterday that the testimony from 200 witnesses is essential to
their understanding of the accident, and they vowed to press Gehman and the
board for access.
The lawmakers, including Science Committee Chairman Sherwood
L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.),
said they received assurances during a meeting with Gehman last week that they
and their staffs could see expurgated copies of the transcripts, with the names
of the witnesses removed. They said they were also promised full access to other
data and material generated by the probe.
"As long as confidentiality is being taken care of, there
is no reason for members of Congress not to see all the information that has
been available to the board during this investigation," said Rohrabacher,
chairman of the space and aeronautics subcommittee. "Members of Congress
are elected by the people in order to look at information."
However, Gehman said in Houston this week that the transcripts
of closed-door interviews "are never going to see the light of day,"
and that his "offer [to Congress] does not include looking at privileged
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates
civilian airplane crashes, routinely makes public the transcripts or summaries
of interviews with witnesses and the transcripts of "relevant" cockpit
recordings of pilot conversations, spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said. Sometimes,
however, the board has withheld information that was deemed
"proprietary" by an airplane manufacturer.
"I don't know of any occasion where we got testimony from
somebody where there wouldn't at least be a summary of the interview placed in
the public docket," Lopatkiewicz said.
For the past three months, the Columbia accident board has
focused on determining the chain of events that led to the disintegration of the
orbiter over Texas. On Tuesday, Gehman laid out the board's "working
scenario" of what went wrong, beginning with a debris strike against the
shuttle's left wing during liftoff on Jan. 16 and ending with superheated gases
invading a breach in the wing's leading edge during the reentry.
But board members are also investigating long-standing
management practices and the culture of decision making within NASA. They are
questioning whether the agency had become too accepting of routine damage to the
shuttle's critical heat-shielding.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Kenneth W. Hess, former astronaut Sally
Ride and other board members have conducted exhaustive interviews with NASA
engineers, contractors, senior officials and shuttle managers in an attempt to
understand why NASA managers refused to seek photographs of the damaged space
shuttle in orbit despite the repeated pleas of a Johnson Space Center damage
Under the board's policy, none of that testimony will ever be
shared with the public or members of Congress. And none will be summarized in
the board's final report, which is due out this summer.
One board member described the extensive private briefings to
investigators as a "tutorial" that has encouraged frank testimony by
witnesses and will help the board members as they develop their final
The board, which was formally appointed by NASA Administrator
Sean O'Keefe the day of the Columbia accident, adopted the approach typically
used by the military in conducting accident investigations -- one that keeps
most sensitive personnel and decision making matters private. Gehman said there
is "a long, rich legal history" that supports this concept of
executive privilege in military accident investigations, including two Supreme
Court decisions, in 1963 and 1984.
"The only thing I know is that this process of conducting
these investigations in a manner that's similar to the Department of Defense
accident investigation has been upheld many times by the courts, and that's our
position on this," Gehman told a reporter.
By contrast, the blue ribbon commission appointed by President
Ronald Reagan in 1986 to investigate the Challenger shuttle explosion carried
out most of its business in public and used FBI agents to conduct many
Congress and Gehman, for the most part, have enjoyed good
relations, despite the initial concern of Gordon and other Democrats that the
board lacked adequate independence from NASA. With prodding from Congress and
the board, O'Keefe issued a series of amendments to the panel's charter to allay
By MIKE SCHNEIDER Associated Press April 30, 2003, 3:41PM
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Hundreds of
worms being used in a science experiment aboard the space shuttle Columbia have
been found alive in the wreckage, NASA said today.
The worms, known as C. elegans,
were found in debris found in Texas several weeks ago. Technicians sorting
through the debris at Kennedy Space Center in Florida didn't open the containers
of worms and dead moss cells until this week.
All seven astronauts were killed
when the shuttle disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1. Columbia contained almost
60 scientific investigations.
"To my knowledge, these are
the only live experiments that have been located and identified," said
Bruce Buckingham, a NASA spokesman at the Kennedy Space Center.
The worms and moss were in the same
nine-pound locker located in the mid-deck of the space shuttle. The worms were
placed in six canisters, each holding eight petri dishes.
The worms, which are about the size
of the tip of a pencil, were part of an experiment testing a new synthetic
nutrient solution. The worms, which have a life cycle of between seven and 10
days, were four or five generations old, Buckingham said.
The experiment was put together by
researchers at the NASA Ames Research Center in California.
The moss, known as Ceratodon, were
used to study how a space flight environment influences cell growth. During
Columbia's flight, shuttle commander Rick Husband sprayed the moss with a
chemical that destroyed protein fiber. He also sprayed the moss with
formaldehyde to preserve it. Seven of the eight aluminum canisters holding the
moss were recovered.
The experiment was put together by
an Ames Research Center researcher and Dr. Fred Sack at Ohio State University.
"The cells were surprisingly
well-preserved, but we're analyzing how useful it's going to be," Sack
Researchers said they don't know if
the worms will still have any scientific value since they were supposed to have
been examined and unloaded from Columbia within hours of landing
"It's pretty astonishing to
get the possibility of data after all that has happened," Sack said.
"We never expected it. We expected a molten mass."
Recovery of key shuttle seal could refocus
By Michael Cabbage |
Space Editor Posted April 29, 2003
CAPE CANAVERAL -- Investigators have found pieces of a key seal from the
leading edge of Columbia's left wing that could revise an emerging theory on
what caused the orbiter to break up during re-entry.
Two parts of a T-shaped seal thought to have filled the gap between a pair of
critical reinforced carbon-carbon, or RCC, panels were identified last week,
according to internal NASA documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel. The
find is significant because it could narrow the possible causes of a breach in
Columbia's protective heat armor that led to the ship's disintegration as it
headed toward a Feb. 1 landing at Kennedy Space Center.
The RCC panels, numbered 8 and 9, are among 22 U-shaped thermal shields that
guard the left wing's leading edge from temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees
during the shuttle's fiery plunge home through Earth's atmosphere. The seal is
a T-shaped rib of reinforced carbon-carbon that is custom fitted to protect
the seam between the panels.
The seal and RCC panels in question are located in the same general area about
midway down the leading edge where a 2-pound piece of foam insulation from
Columbia's external fuel tank hit the orbiter 82 seconds after launch Jan. 16.
Investigators suspect the strike created a breach that allowed blowtorch-like
hot gases to destroy the wing, gradually causing the ship to break up 38 miles
Identification of the seal fragments is important because investigators had
been focusing on the possibility that the breach could have started between
panels 8 and 9 if the seal had been damaged during launch. The two recovered
segments are a 4-inch piece of the seal's apex and a longer portion of the rib
below it -- parts of the seal's lower half that likely would have to be broken
or knocked off to create the breach.
Recovery of the fragments, however, has cast doubt on that possibility.
A day after Columbia's launch, Air Force radar detected a piece of debris
leaving the area of the shuttle in orbit. Engineers theorized the debris was a
part of the ship that was damaged during launch and shaken loose.
Tests at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to compare the radar
signature of the item seen drifting away with parts of the shuttle have
eliminated everything except a T-seal and a piece of an RCC panel. But the
seal fragments were found in Texas with other shuttle debris, making it less
likely that part of the seal could have come off in orbit and been missing at
the start of re-entry.
"There always has been the possibility it could be a piece of an RCC
panel and not a T-seal," said Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the Columbia
Accident Investigation Board. "Even though the piece seen in space could
have been consistent with a T-seal, it also could have been consistent with a
piece of an RCC panel."
Analyses done by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration allow for
Last week, NASA engineers studying 10 disaster scenarios eliminated all of
them except for one: a breach of the left wing's leading edge between RCC
panels 5 and 9, likely the result of a hole in the bottom of RCC panel 8 or
damage to the lower half of the seal between panels 8 and 9. An April 15
forensics study of shuttle debris concluded that "wing failure initiated
in the panel 9 area" and "most likely at the panel 8 to 9 joint
area." Investigators from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board also
appear to be zeroing in on the same location.
Discovery of the T-seal fragments should do little to change the growing
conviction that the breach occurred in the same general area of the left
wing's leading edge. It could, however, force investigators to rethink what
was emerging as a convenient explanation that appeared to fit all of the known
Recovered shuttle debris made the seal a compelling suspect. Knife-edged
pieces from the inside edges of RCC panels 8 and 9 show prolonged erosion from
superhot gases. The worst erosion is along the seam between the panels where
lengthy heat damage could occur if the seal between them were missing or
Some uncertainty remains as to whether the fragments are from the seal between
panels 8 and 9 or the seal between panels 10 and 11. If the seal is from
between panels 8 and 9 as thought, however, analysts say any gap left by the
portion of the T-seal that has not been found would be too small to have
triggered the catastrophe.
Meanwhile, an engineering analysis done Thursday appears to provide new
evidence that the breach started somewhere around panels 8 and 9.
Investigators have been studying unusual readings from a temperature sensor on
an aluminum support behind panel 9 that were recorded during launch. The
potentially important readings were recovered from a data recorder found March
After foam debris hit the leading edge during launch, the sensor showed
temperatures were rising faster than normal. Engineers compared the
temperature increase with data from seven other Columbia launches between 1992
The analysis revealed that Columbia's final flight showed indications of
warming earlier than in any of the other missions, at 310 seconds after
liftoff. The sensor readings on the last launch also showed the highest
temperature increase, despite being a winter launch with a temperature of 67
degrees at liftoff.
Michael Cabbage can be reached at 321-639-0522 or
By Kevin Spear |
Writer Posted April 7, 2003
-- The reel-to-reel tape recorder is approaching 35 years old. It dates from
an era of eight-track car stereos; it's less advanced technologically than the
videocassette recorder that sits in your living room; and it was abandoned
long ago by the scientists who ordered it installed as original equipment on
today, this low-tech relic, with its 9,200 feet of magnetic recording tape, is
providing NASA and the board investigating the Columbia disaster with a
detailed look at what happened aboard the shuttle in the minutes before it
broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1.
was really surprised to hear this thing -- one of my pets -- was flown and
then found," said retired National Aeronautics and Space Administration
engineer Robert L. Giesecke, who wrote specifications for the recorder in the
late 1970s and assumed it had been replaced after he left the agency in 1995.
the 1990s, it was obsolete."
resting on a bed of leaves on a Texas hillside, the recorder -- which was
turned on as Columbia began its re-entry of Earth's atmosphere -- is gradually
offering up a detailed picture of how superhot gases penetrated and ultimately
melted the orbiter's left wing.
from some of the roughly 670 still-functioning sensors show heat began
building up in the wing just 80 seconds after Columbia began its re-entry. That's more than three minutes before the orbiter's space-to-ground telemetry
registered a temperature increase, board member Roger Tetrault said. Board Chairman Harold W. Gehman Jr. has called the recorder readings a
Tetrault at a news briefing last week: "This data will help us
he said, more than 100 engineers are studying temperature, vibration and
aerodynamic-strain measurements to pinpoint where on the wing the thermal
suspect Columbia's left wing was damaged when hit by a 2-pound chunk of
insulating foam during launch Jan. 16.
board said radar analysis shows a likelihood that a piece of the wing -- an
access panel near the wing's leading edge -- floated away from the shuttle on
its second day in orbit.
data establish that within minutes after re-entry, temperatures of at least
450 degrees -- the maximum the sensors were designed to record before they
failed -- invaded the hollow space behind the wing's leading-edge armor at a
location within feet of where the foam is thought to have caused the damage.
nine minutes into re-entry, a sensor on the tail behind the wing rose to 1,200
degrees -- twice as hot as normal. Tetrault said the increase may have been
the result of "burning aluminum."
a noncritical system'
the so-called experiments, or OEX, recorder had long outlived its original
usefulness. Even if it had stopped working on a launch day, NASA would not
have been alarmed.
a noncritical system," said Fred Ouellette, a shuttle manager at Johnson
Space Center in Houston. "If it failed, we would still fly." Yet failure hadn't been an issue.
OEX recorder was always there for us," said Rey Rivas, a Boeing Co.
manager whose laboratory had taken care of the recorders. "I don't think
we ever had any problems."
device wasn't new when NASA purchased several in the late 1970s, in
preparation for the start of shuttle flights in 1981. The Air Force had been
using them to gather data from test flights of experimental planes.
companies, including Kodak and Bell & Howell, developed the 60-pound
recorders, which were sold as a "Modular Airborne Recording
but haven't been made in many years.
innards encased in a tough aluminum box, the recorder's twin tape reels, each
the size of an automobile's steering wheel, were mounted in a sandwiched, face-to-face configuration rather than a more conventional
edge-to-edge arrangement. Each reel ran at its own speed.
Lifetime of spare parts
purchased a "lifetime" batch of spare parts for the machines, Rivas
said. His lab handled modifications and repairs for years.
recently, the NASA Shuttle Logistics Depot, near Kennedy Space Center and part
of the United Space Alliance shuttle-management contractor, has maintained the
least one of the devices is for sale. A website that peddles "TechJunk"
offers a recorder at a "make offer" price.
Rains of Houston said he bought one of the machines from NASA in 2001.
when they get rid of something, it's junk," he said.
Devices had 2 purposes
space agency purchased the recorders for two purposes.
was the high-profile Orbiter Experiments project, created by NASA scientists
to observe the effects of launch, space and re-entry on the materials used to
make the shuttle.
other was the "development flight instrumentation" project, to
enable NASA managers to monitor and verify that the shuttle would fly as
all, about 4,000 sensors for vibration, acceleration, stress, heating,
acoustics, pressure and many other factors were installed in Columbia -- the
first shuttle to fly into space -- with their data fed to the OEX and other
OEX also received data from onboard cameras.
the years, both efforts wound down.
people interested in data got pretty good data and pulled out," said
Jackson D. Harris, a retired NASA manager for the experiments. More and more of the sensors and their wiring were removed, to save weight and
only about 670 sensors still worked on Columbia's last flight, all of them
routed into the otherwise-idle OEX recorder.
one other shuttle had been equipped with the recorder: Challenger.
a NASA shuttle manager, said recorder data were reviewed after each flight, to
look for trends that might show a need to modify the shuttle.
said he and other engineers he talked to don't remember any such
Burned gray from fall
found on the Texas hillside, the recorder was seared an ashen gray, a sharp
contrast to its normal lustrous black finish.
would learn later, with some surprise, that the device wasn't badly damaged.
Only the "front porch," as Giesecke called it, was missing. That was
a shelf extending from the recorder with attachment points for six cables.
serious threat to the tape was hidden. A container of powdered desiccant --
moisture absorber -- had broken open inside. It could have groundraw spots
into tape. The tape was cleaned by the Imation Corp. near St. Paul, Minn., and
duplicated at Kennedy Space Center.
was something of a miracle the machine was ever found.
the 12,242 searchers who have walked the debris path in the past two months,
165 of them, mostly forest rangers and firefighters, have come from Florida.
March 19, the Florida 4 team of 20 members set out across an area near
Hemphill that had already been searched.
Baker, a Florida forest ranger from Okahumpka in Lake County, had joined the
effort eight days earlier. All he had located were a few animal bones -- and
germs that gave him strep throat and bronchitis.
a rise of scattered oaks and open space, Baker looked ahead 15 yards to beyond
a part," he called out, an alert that two or three other searchers echoed
was sitting there just like it fell," Baker said later. "Funny thing
is, a NASA guy was telling us about the flight recorder the night
Leaves cushioned landing
was amazed the machine had not disappeared into the Toledo Bend Reservoir or
one of the many mud bogs in the area, or disintegrated during its 200,000-foot
fall after Columbia broke up.
it had plopped down on a thick cushion of leaves and perhaps even slid a short
couldn't really even see signs that it had dug in," Baker said.
search team later paused for lunch. A muscular guy -- 6-feet-2, 200 pounds and
from NASA, Baker thinks -- came striding past.
carried the recorder, wrapped in clear plastic, on his left shoulder.
heavy?" Baker asked.
the man grunted, not slowing to talk. NASA analysts were waiting.
"This looks to us like it had a pre-existing
condition" when the shuttle entered the atmosphere, retired Adm. Harold W.
Gehman Jr., chairman of the investigation board, said during a teleconference
with reporters yesterday.
Data from a sensor closest to the front
edge of the left wing show temperatures rising as early as 8:49 a.m. EST. That
was about five minutes after Columbia began its re-entry.
The same sensor also showed temperatures
rising quickly, Adm. Gehman said. The sensor was destroyed nine seconds after
8:52 a.m., when the shuttle was 300 miles from the California coast.
Gases were eating their way through the
damaged left wing, Adm. Gehman said. Once the second sensor began recording high
temperatures, sensors throughout the left wing indicated higher temperatures,
but some recorded falling temperatures. "They began doing some strange
things," Adm. Gehman said.
CANAVERAL -- A preliminary review of magnetic tape from shuttle Columbia's
recovered flight recorder shows the device still might have been taking data
seconds before the ship disintegrated, investigators said Thursday.
The time-consuming job of
extracting and processing actual sensor data from the recorder isn't
expected to begin until the tape is delivered to NASA's Johnson Space Center
in Houston this weekend. Data review will begin next week.
But officials are hopeful
sensor measurements from the recorder might help investigators pinpoint the
cause of the Feb. 1 accident, which killed seven astronauts.
"This may be a huge piece
of the puzzle," JSC spokesman Dave Youngman said. "Hopefully,
fingers crossed, we'll get more information."
About the size of a
videocassette recorder, the so-called Orbiter Experiments Support System was
found in a pine forest outside Hemphill, Texas, on March 19. Investigators
say the device was programmed to take 721 sensor measurements from the
shuttle's wings, fuselage and vertical stabilizer, or tail.
Of particular interest to
investigators will be 182 pressure measurements, 53 temperature measurements
and 447 aerodynamic stress measurements. Among those are a series of
measurements from sensors within the shuttle's left wing.
Investigators think hot gasses
breached the ship's left wing, triggering the destruction of the$2 billion
shuttle. They noted, however, that engineers still aren't certain whether
the data might have been corrupted.
"Now we have to note that
this (recorder) has been through a very severe environment," Hubbard
said. "We don't know yet the quality of the data on there."
The tape was duplicated earlier
this week at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. In doing so, engineers noted that
a "time tag" showed that some type of imprint exists on the tape
until 18 seconds after 9 a.m. on Feb. 1.
NASA's Mission Control Center
lost contact with Columbia and its crew at 8:59:31 a.m. that day. The main
body of the ship began breaking up at 9:00:23 a.m., or five seconds after
the flight recorder apparently stopped operating.
Installed on Columbia before
NASA's first shuttle flight in 1981, the recorder was designed to gather
temperature, acceleration and vibration data to help engineers understand
the stresses on the spacecraft during flight.
The device contains 9,400 feet
of magnetic tape that permits up to two hours recording time. It was turned
on 10 minutes before Columbia's Jan. 16 launch and then turned off about six
minutes after the shuttle reached orbit.
The recorder was activated
again 15 minutes before Columbia began its ill-fated, 45-minute plunge
through the atmosphere.
The ship and its crew were lost
over Texas about 16 minutes before a planned landing at KSC.
CANAVERAL -- Magnetic tape within a key flight data recorder survived the
destruction of shuttle Columbia in astonishing condition, bolstering hopes
that it might help investigators pinpoint the cause of the Feb. 1 accident.
"I think there's a lot of
cautious optimism," Kyle Herring, a spokesman for NASA's Johnson Space
Center in Houston, said Monday. "We're very hopeful it will yield some
additional data that investigative teams don't have now."
Roughly the size of a
videocassette recorder, the device could provide new clues to accident
Data beamed down from Columbia
degraded about a minute before the ship broke up, becoming intermittent and,
at points, unreliable. The recovered recorder contains data stored aboard
the orbiter and not beamed back during the ship's atmospheric re-entry.
Discovered last week by a team
of Florida firefighters in a pine forest near Hemphill, Texas, the recorder
was found embedded in damp ground. But it was intact.
Columbia disintegrated at an
altitude of roughly 200,000 feet, and much of the shuttle debris that has
been discovered to date has shown severe damage from high temperatures or
The tape within Columbia's
recorder was stretched and broken between the supply and take-up reels of
the device. But otherwise, it is in "remarkably good shape,"
Specialists at Imation Corp., a
data storage company based in Oakdale, Minn., cleaned and stabilized the
tape over the weekend. It is to be shipped as early as today to Kennedy
Space Center, where it will be dubbed. The original and copies then will be
forwarded to engineers in Houston.
Columbia was the only one of
NASA's four shuttle orbiters equipped with this particular type of recorder,
known as the Orbiter Experiment Support System.
Installed on the ship before
NASA's first shuttle flight in 1981, the recorder was designed to gather
temperature, acceleration and vibration data to help engineers understand
the stresses on the spacecraft during flight.
The device contains 9,400 feet
of magnetic tape that permits up to two hours recording time. It was turned
on 10 minutes before the shuttle's Jan. 16 launch and then turned off about
six minutes after the shuttle reached orbit.
The recorder was activated
again 15 minutes before Columbia began its ill-fated return to Earth. About
half of the tape was found on the take-up reel, raising hopes that it
continued operating until the shuttle began breaking up.
Still to be determined is
whether the device actually recorded data. Also in question: the quality of
any data that might have been recorded.
22, 7:28 PM
ripe for icy debris
foam heavy enough for catastrophic blow to wing
John Kelly FLORIDA
CAPE CANAVERAL -- NASA fueled and launched
shuttle Columbia in weather in which ice almost certainly formed on its
15-story fuel tank. The presence of ice made it more likely that debris
smacking the shuttle's wing in flight was heavy enough to cause
problems seen before
of 113 NASA shuttle missions to date shows that foam debris from the
bipod area of the external tank on four flights prior to the Jan. 16
launch of Columbia. The bipod area is where two metal struts connect
the tank to the nose of the orbiter. In each case, the debris did
significant damage to shuttle orbiters. Take a look at the missions,
the atmospheric conditions present at each launch, and subsequent
See the chart
A six-week Florida Today
investigation has found:
Wet, humid conditions
throughout Columbia's 39 days at the seaside launch pad provided a
near-perfect environment for moisture and ice.
The chunks of burnt-orange
insulation that hit Columbia come from an area where the foam is
hand-crafted in a way that makes it likely to soak up moisture, which
could freeze into an icy crust that would be hard for inspectors to see.
sopped with water or coated in ice would be far heavier than dry foam and
capable of far more damage.
Launch-day video shows debris
striking the lower front edge of the wing, an area where super-hot gas
breached the shuttle's protective armor as it entered Earth's upper
atmosphere Feb. 1.
Investigators already have
concluded that breach is one link in the chain of events that led to the
disintegration of the $2 billion spacecraft high above Texas, killing seven
Early on in the 16-day mission,
NASA and its contractors assumed what they saw hitting Columbia was dry
foam, something akin to a Styrofoam cooler or a boater's life jacket. The
assumption colored the engineering analysis that deemed dry foam was too
light to do enough damage to endanger Columbia or its crew.
If the debris included ice, it
could be heavier, a possibility raised by engineers inside and outside the
"Think bowling ball,"
said former NASA engineer Gregory Sakala of Titusville.
The makeup of the debris has
become a major line of inquiry for the Columbia Accident Investigation
Board, which has assigned at least a dozen teams to one job: "Follow
The analysis to determine what
the debris is made of may be finished as early as this week.
"I think that that's still
an open question as to whether or not there might be ice in there or
not," said inquiry board chairman, retired Adm. Harold Gehman.
Conditions show recipe for ice
In an effort to resolve the ice
question, Florida Today obtained weather readings from launch pad 39A and
compared the conditions with past weather data, NASA ice research and
inspection reports from past shuttle missions. A computer-assisted analysis
of the data, and interviews with shuttle and weather specialists, indicates
a recipe for moisture, frost and ice on the big tank.
Columbia made the three-mile
journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad Dec. 9. The
tank sat outside for 39 days, exposed to nearly 10 inches of rain and almost
daily humidity above 90 percent.
In the overnight hours of its
last day on Earth, the shuttle was aglow on Pad 39A, towering out of a soupy
fog blanketing the Cape.
It was jacket weather in
Florida, moist and mid-40s on the ground. Sixty feet up, on the launch
platform, the temperature hovered below 50 degrees. The humidity was almost
100 percent when the launch team gave the go-ahead to start pumping
super-cold liquid fuel into the massive tank.
Anywhere else, that's just
nippy weather. Up on the pad, it's a different world. The presence of a half
million gallons of liquid hydrogen, at minus 423 degrees, and liquid oxygen,
at minus 298 degrees, changes everything.
That's one reason why
manufacturer Lockheed Martin sprays an inch-thick layer of polyurethane foam
onto the tank. The insulation stems the growth of frost and ice that could
come off the tank and pelt the shuttle during launch. But the deep freeze
inside means temperatures on the insulation surface can be 10 to 30 degrees
cooler than the air outside.
So with temperatures as high as
60 degrees, and high humidity, condensation can turn to frost and ice.
That's especially true where the foam is thinner, cracked or somehow
altered, according NASA-sponsored research.
Thick ice can form in warm weather
In 1983, the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers recreated the wide range of atmospheric conditions the foam must
endure, including varying temperatures, humidity and wind. Then they watched
what happened when moisture formed on the insulation.
Droplets trickled down the test
foam. Even at air temperatures far above freezing, the drips pooled and
froze on thinner foam as well as inside cracks or tiny defects in the
surface. The researchers found ice grew dangerously thick in conditions
warmer than NASA's models had predicted. Experiments also showed ice patches
could linger for hours even as temperatures rose.
"A potential hazard to the
orbiter tiles which has not been previously identified could occur during
relatively cool and humid ambient conditions as a result of extensive frost
formations," the report said.
". . . The avalanche of
frost at liftoff could be large enough to be of concern."
The Florida Today analysis
compared the Army experiments, weather and ice reports from past missions
and the conditions at Pad 39A to determine ice likely formed on Columbia's
tank Jan. 16.
The weather that day was
similar to a past Columbia launch.
That day in 1990, temperatures
stayed under 54 degrees, with 100 percent humidity. Inspectors touring the
pad three hours before launch saw condensation running down the tank and
forming patches of ice and frost. They reported ice at the pad did not
violate safety rules and, once things warmed up, Columbia blasted off.
Once in orbit, the tank tumbled
away. Pictures showed divots, including one as wide as 28 inches, in the
tank near the same spot where foam came off on Columbia's last flight. When
Columbia landed, inspectors counted more than 100 tiles hit by debris and
measured one gouge 2-by-3 inches. The damage was deemed less than average.
The ice formation that day was
not unique. Some frost or ice forms on almost every tank, even during hot,
sunny Florida summers.
Treatments allow moisture to penetrate
NASA discounts any suggestion
of water or ice-laden debris.
The fuel tank foam is
closed-celled. That means individual cells are tightly packed together so
other molecules, even water or gas, can't get inside. The bulk of it is
sprayed on the tank at a plant near New Orleans, mostly by robots. The outer
layer hardens into a sort of rind, an orangish skin that further protects it
from the moist air outside. This is the kind of foam shuttle program manager
Ron Dittemore showed the news media in the days after the accident to
bolster his point that the material is lightweight and impervious to
But the foam suspected of
popping off Columbia's tank is different. It doesn't have that protective
outer layer. It's called "close-out" foam because it's applied
near the end of manufacturing, by workers using their hands, molds and
tools. Some of the work is done in Louisiana; some at KSC where crews attach
the tank to its orbiter and solid rocket boosters.
A perfect example of that kind
of foam are the bipod ramps, the triangular blocks that fell off during
Columbia's launch and at least four previous launches. Workers pour the foam
for the twin ramps into place near metal struts that attach the tank to the
orbiter's nose. They use tools to cut the foam to an aerodynamic shape.
In that general area, workers
shave or sand other close-out foam. They also use what looks like a wire
brush to poke tiny holes in large tracts of nearby foam. The process called
venting was meant to let gas trapped inside escape instead of expanding and
blasting the foam off the tank.
These treatments can provide a
path for gas and moisture to get inside the foam. The workers are slicing
open the walls of those closed cells and removing the polyurethane's hard
"The presence or the
absence of that skin has a dramatic effect," said Gordon Nelson,
professor of chemistry at Florida Tech. Nelson studies how polymers and
similar materials behave under different conditions.
Experiments by companies that
make similar closed-cell foams, which are used for everything from airplanes
to roofing, show the skinless foam absorbs moisture during prolonged
exposure to humidity. A study in the late 1990s by Huntsman Polyurethanes
showed the skinless foam could triple in weight after 30 days in a very
In the case of Columbia's final
mission, the formula could mean the left wing was hit by a chunk of foam/ice
weighing up to 71/2 pounds instead of a 21/2-pounds.
But NASA says such tests were
conducted on a slightly different kind of foam.
Neil Otte, deputy manager of
the NASA program that oversees design and manufacture of the tanks, said the
agency tested the foam's resistance to moisture by exposing it to 125-degree
temperatures and 95 percent humidity for seven days. The foam absorbed a
little water, but never gained more than 1 percent in weight, Otte said.
NASA tested both intact and shaved foam.
Otte conceded shaving the foam
on the bipod ramps, for example, slices open a layer of cells several
millimeters deep. He acknowledged that area could absorb moisture that could
freeze into an icy crust under certain atmospheric conditions. But he said
that's too thin to be dangerous.
NASA has been redesigning the
bipod ramps since last fall, when foam from that area fell off during
launch. The foam redesign and efforts to preclude foam loss altogether are
on Dittemore's official checklist for preparing the shuttles for return to
Cracks, dents increase ice risks
Other common defects in the
foam, such as cracks, dents or shoddy repairs, also can cause problems
made worse by moisture.
Moisture can accumulate in
the tiniest crevice, freeze into ice and form dangerous projectiles during
launch. The temperature can plummet hundreds of degrees as the moisture
gets fractions of an inch closer to the tank's metal surface.
Freezing material can expand
and aggravate a phenomenon called cryopumping. Gas or moisture gets into
air pockets or voids between the insulation and the tank, expanding as the
temperature rises during launch. If the resulting gas can't escape as
quickly as it needs to, the pressure can blow foam off the tank.
Otte said that's why NASA
treats cracks or other defects very seriously.
Florida Today's review of ice
team inspections for dozens of past missions indicates some cracks are
deemed acceptable, but only in certain locations away from the shuttle's
belly or when there is no dangerous ice buildup.
The assessment depends on
judgment by inspectors and launch managers.
NASA has delayed launches
because of fears about ice. The delays have ranged from several hours of
waiting for the air around the pad to warm up, to weeks for repairing
cracks or holes in foam.
In two examples in the 1990s,
NASA rolled Discovery back from the launch pad to the Vehicle Assembly
Building to touch up holes drilled in the foam by woodpeckers and hail.
The reason? NASA engineers
determined any holes an eighth of an inch in diameter posed a danger. Ice
one-sixteenth of an inch thick can be deemed dangerous enough to scrub a
launch, depending on where it forms.
Launch conditions deemed safe
The conditions on Jan. 16 did
not violate NASA's weather standards meant to minimize ice. TV monitors,
computer temperature models and the human inspection before launch are the
last line of defense against ice and debris. A squad of hawk-eyed veterans
climbs up and down the launch tower three hours before launch. They look
for possible debris, including cracked insulation, condensation, frost and
ice. The inspectors use temperature scanners and binoculars to spot
A 130-page checklist the team
used during its Jan. 16 inspection of Columbia, obtained by Florida Today
under the Freedom of Information Act, shows inspectors saw no ice buildup
that violated safety rules.
Handwritten notes indicate
frost was spotted on at least three regions of the tank. The team also
noticed frost and ice coming off the shuttle stack during liftoff. A more
detailed report like those from past missions may not be prepared about
STS-107, NASA said Friday.
The checklist indicates the
team was allotted 10 minutes at the 195-foot-high level of the launch
tower to inspect the bipod ramp and at least seven other areas. There's no
indication they looked again at those places.
Otte said NASA data
challenges the Florida Today conclusions about ice, but would not
elaborate. He suggested interviewing ice team members, but KSC has denied
requests to interview the inspectors.
Shuttle and ice experts,
including workers who've performed the final ice inspection, say there is
no way to see everything as they scan the 15-story tank from platforms 75
feet from the tank.
Cracks in the foam, even if
spotted by the team, could harbor moisture and ice that would not be
spotted. Ice can worsen in the three hours between the inspection and
liftoff, even if conditions at the pad warm up.
NASA engineer Gregory Katnik,
an 18-year veteran of the inspections, said despite not being able to see
everything, the team knows what it's looking for.
"It gets to the point
where you can tell when something is wrong," Katnik said of the
inspection team. "You have looked at so many vehicles over the years,
you can tell something is out of the ordinary. There are pages and pages
of checklists. . . . You know there should not be liquid dripping here and
there should not be a protrusion there."
B.K. Davis, a retired NASA
external tank manager who now lives in Cocoa Beach, trusts the inspection
and other processes that make sure there is no dangerous ice before
"Everyone talks about
ice, but that is a red herring," Davis said.
Still, as part of the
investigation, NASA weather experts are analyzing rain, humidity and other
data from Columbia's stay on the pad and previous launches. They're
analyzing tile damage reports to see whether there's a relation between
atmospheric conditions and debris, weather officer John Madura said.
If investigators conclude
there was ice, it would raise new questions about how NASA managers and
their contractors analyzed possible damage while Columbia still orbited
The analysis assumed the
debris was light foam only. The mission managers concluded that foam could
damage the wing but not badly enough to destroy the ship during re-entry.
The analysis said small changes in the weight of the debris could cause
more serious damage.
In the end, the space
agency's managers apparently rejected the possibility of icy debris. Not
all engineers liked that assumption.
In an internal e-mail to
colleagues, NASA engineer Dan Mazanek of Langley Research Center noted if
the debris were solid ice, it could be 30 times as heavy as foam.
would be the equivalent of a 500-pound safe hitting the wing at 365 miles
HOUSTON (AP) -- A data recorder has been found, fully intact, from the
shattered Columbia and its magnetic tape may hold clues to the spaceship's
destruction in the skies over Texas.
"It's very, very promising, but we just won't know how useful it's
going to be until they're able to retrieve the data," Laura Brown, a
spokeswoman for the accident investigation board, said Wednesday night.
The recorder, found by a search team earlier in the day near Hemphill in
East Texas, could hold valuable information about temperatures,
aerodynamic pressures and vibrations on Columbia in its final minutes of
flight, Brown said. She likened it to an airplane's black box.
"We have no way of knowing whether the data can be
recovered," said Brown, who works for the FAA. But she added that if
it can, "it will give us, hopefully, a lot of information about what
was going on with the orbiter."
In fact, it could be one of the most significant pieces of shuttle
debris found in the six weeks since the accident.
The discovery -- the recorder
was right side up on a damp slope -- was all the more thrilling for NASA
and the investigation board because it had been days since any major
pieces of the shuttle had been found.
"It's very far between when we find things that are on our list of
most wanted items," said NASA spokesman James Hartsfield. "But
that excitement is tempered some by waiting to find out if, indeed, we can
get data from it and, secondly, just what that data could tell us."
The recorder, which sustained some heat damage, arrived Thursday
morning at Johnson Space Center. Hartsfield said it probably will be late
next week, at the earliest, before experts devise a plan to analyze the
9,400 feet of magnetic tape.
"We want to be very careful how we deal with it," Hartsfield
said. "So we're not in a rush here."
Brown said the recorder, called the orbiter experiments support system,
or OEX, normally is turned on right before a shuttle begins its descent
through the atmosphere and runs for one or two hours.
Columbia broke apart during its atmospheric re-entry on Feb. 1, just
minutes short of a planned Florida touchdown.
The investigation board suspects the left wing of Columbia was
breached, possibly by launch debris 16 days earlier, and that searing
atmospheric gases penetrated the hole and carved a deadly path through the
wing and into the left landing gear compartment. All seven astronauts were
About 30,000 pieces of Columbia have been found, representing nearly 20
percent of the descending shuttle.
NASA's space shuttles have a variety of computers and data recorders,
but nothing directly comparable to the black boxes on airplanes that give
crash investigators detailed flight information.
Hartsfield said the recovered
data recorder, about the size of an old videocassette recorder, is of a
type used for the initial shuttle flights by Columbia back in the early
1980s to collect information from dozens of sensors. It was modified over
the years and no longer was gathering the same type of data.
The recorder was housed beneath
the lower floor of the crew cabin.
Earlier Wednesday, well before the recorder was found and identified,
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said investigators may never find a single
definitive cause for the catastrophe.
"We're six weeks into this and there's not going to be an
'ah-hah'," he told the NASA Advisory Council at Stennis Space Flight
Center in Mississippi.
O'Keefe said contributing factors could include hardware failure, the
breakdown of processes and procedures during the flight and bad judgment
calls. He did not elaborate on those factors, but noted: "I bet it's
going to be a combination of all three."
O'Keefe said he does, however, expect answers that will enable NASA to
resume shuttle flights.
"My personal sense is that the problem is definable and the
problem is fixable," he said.
In New Orleans, meanwhile, NASA's deputy associate administrator for
spaceflight, Michael Kostelnik, led a meeting to discuss how to keep the
space shuttles operating through 2015. The two-day session was billed as
the beginning of the space agency's process of determining how to extend
the life span of the three remaining shuttles.
The shuttles, which were built to fly no more than 100 missions, could
be needed far longer than expected, Kostelnik said. Columbia, the oldest
in the fleet, was making its 28th flight.
HOUSTON -- Columbia accident
investigators found a key flight data recorder Wednesday, a device that
could shed new light on what was happening to the spacecraft before it
disintegrated over east Texas on Feb. 1.
Searchers found the Orbital
Experiment Support System near Hemphill, Texas, in the general region
where most of the Columbia debris has been found.
About the size of a bread
box, the instrument records on magnetic tape data such as temperatures,
pressures, vibrations, acceleration, electrical currents and strains on
the vehicle. The recorder was recovered intact and taken to Johnson Space
Center, where it must be cleaned up before determining how to get to the
data without damaging it.
The recorder starts up about
10 minutes before the shuttle reaches the first traces of the upper
atmosphere. Investigators believe it would have continued to run until the
vehicle broke up.
"It's a pretty promising
find," said Air Force Lt. Col. Tyrone Woodyard, a spokesman for the
Columbia Accident Investigation Board. "We're hoping it can provide
us some indications of what was going on . . . But we have to be
To date, investigators have
been forced to rely on telemetry data beamed back from the shuttle, video
and photographs in attempt to piece together what destroyed the Columbia.
That information has helped
NASA build a timeline of events as the orbiter crossed the southwestern
United States on way to a planned landing at Kennedy Space Center.
tunnel tests have yet to duplicate Columbia breakup, expert says
- Preliminary consideration of various possibilities has not yet pointed to
one likely cause for the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia, NASA
engineers told the accident investigation board today.
During its third public
hearing, the board heard from engineers who are reconstructing the
aerodynamics and thermodynamics of the shuttle's re-entry and trying to
pinpoint what damage might have occurred and when it would have happened.
"You've asked the $64,000
question," Steven Labbe, chief of the Applied Aeroscience and
Computational Fluid Dynamics Branch at Johnson Space Center, told the board
when asked what caused the shuttle to break apart over Texas on Feb. 1,
killing all seven astronauts.
The board suspects the left
wing's heat-shielding tiles were breached, possibly by insulating foam or
other material falling from the external fuel tank, when Columbia launched
on Jan. 16. The breach could have let hot atmospheric gases penetrate the
left wing during re-entry.
Initial wind tunnel tests on
various possible types of damage - including holes in the wing's leading
edge, missing reinforced carbon carbon panels on the vehicle's body and a
gouge in the main landing gear door - have so far not duplicated the
shuttle's catastrophic failure, Labbe said.
"We're going to be looking
at multiple panels missing, where our future work will focus on. We'll do a
survey of the wing leading edge and look at other scenarios," he said.
"These are very preliminary results. It's premature to draw too many
conclusions from these results. We're just getting started on this
On Monday, the board heard from
shuttle officials and an expert on spacecraft re-entry, who all said a
crucial clue to solving the accident could be in a piece of debris yet to be
discovered in the western United States.
"If we can locate some of
this (Western debris) ... that's going to make us immensely smarter on
exactly how the failure started in the first place," said NASA flight
director Paul Hill, who is leading debris recovery efforts in the West.
mounts showing how gas breached shuttle wing
theory of leading cause
Halvorson FLORIDA TODAY
HOUSTON - A massive search for
Columbia debris is yielding new clues that are shoring up a leading theory
on the cause of the disaster, a source close to the investigation said
Searchers have recovered
internal parts of the shuttle's left main landing gear door that are
shedding light on the way in which hot gasses likely breached Columbia's
thermal protection system and doomed the orbiter.
The new evidence suggests hot
gas entered a breach in thermal panels that protect the leading edge of the
shuttle's left wing, shooting through the wing's interior before burning
through the landing-gear compartment's closed door, ultimately spewing out
before the wing itself began breaking up.
"That would be one way to
explain it," said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Are there other ways to explain it? I'm sure there are other
scenarios. But that is one way you could explain it."
Columbia disintegrated in the
skies over East Texas on Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts onboard.
Investigators quickly turned their attention to debris that broke free from
the shuttle's external tank about 81 seconds into the flight.
Early analysis of launch video
indicated the debris -- thought to be foam insulation perhaps laced with ice
-- struck the left wing of the orbiter near its leading edge or the landing
gear compartment on that side of the ship.
However, a four-second video
clip released by investigators Tuesday shows the debris -- now thought to be
three separate pieces of foam that formed a cluster -- struck the lower part
of the leading edge of the wing.
The leading edge of the wing is
covered by 22 reinforcedcarbon-carbon panels that are designed to protect
that structure from temperatures which reach about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit
The video shows the debris
slamming into an area near so-called RCC panels 6, 7 and 8, potentially
weakening those parts.
Heat-damaged pieces of the
shuttle's left main landing gear door, meanwhile, are adding to the body of
Recently recovered and shipped
to Kennedy Space Center, an internal "uplock pin" appears to have
been subjected to extreme heat and sprayed with molten metal.
An associated titanium flange,
meanwhile, "appears to have been eaten away by some kind of high blast
of heat," the source said. "And because the melting temperature of
titanium is somewhere around 3,000 degrees, that had to be a pretty hot
The uplock pin and the titanium
flange are associated with the mechanical linkage used to open and close the
wheel well doors.
The apparent spray of molten
metal found on the pin, coupled with significant heat damage to both parts,
are indications that hot gases entered the wheel well from inside the wing,
rather than breaching the outside of the landing gear door.
Damage to the parts also
suggests temperatures and pressures built up within the wheel well, an
indicating the landing gear door remained closed until the eventual break-up
of the vehicle.
meanwhile, still aren't ready to pinpoint the root cause of the accident.
"I would not want to say
that we are moving along rapidly to finding the cause, because it remains to
be elusive," retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman told reporters during a
news conference Tuesday.
12, 12:50 AM
shear may have made left wing vulnerable
examining age, other issues on Columbia
Todd Halvorson FLORIDA
HOUSTON -- A pre-planned
steering adjustment by a booster rocket to counteract unusually high wind
shear could have weakened the left wing of Columbia and contributed to the
loss of the ship and its crew, investigators said Tuesday.
A variety of other factors --
such as the age of NASA's oldest orbiter, external tank repairs and the
potential for undetected corrosion beneath the thermal armor that protects
shuttle wings -- also could have played a role in the disaster, the
Six weeks after Columbia
disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, the Columbia Accident Investigation
Board still is working to determine the root cause of the accident, which
killed seven astronauts.
But investigators said when a
final report eventually is made, the disaster likely will be traced not to
a single cause but to a complicated chain of events.
"If you agree with the
theory that complex systems fail in complex ways, it isn't a matter of a
bracket breaking," retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr. told reporters
at a Houston news conference. "It's a matter of a whole series of
Among various scenarios being
contemplated by the board, the leading theories still revolve around
damage to the leading edge of the shuttle's left wing.
video angle: Video released by the Columbia
Accident Investigation Board shows a different perspective of the
chunk of foam hitting the underside of shuttle Columbia on Jan. 16.
Launch video and still
photographs show three pieces of foam insulation, all clumped together,
breaking free from the shuttle's 15-story external tank about 82 seconds
into flight. The debris slammed into the lower part of the left wing's
leading edge. It was immediately pulverized, and its remnants then slipped
beneath the wing.
Investigators, however, do not
think the debris alone could have caused enough damage to account for the
accident. Rather, other factors likely are at play, board members said.
Among possible contributing
causes: The age of shuttle Columbia, which was launched on its first flight
in April 1981.
"One of the scenarios
we're looking at is that it's possible that the foam striking a healthy
orbiter would not have done enough damage to cause the loss of the
vehicle," Gehman said.
But, he added, an
"unhealthy orbiter" -- for instance, a spaceship weakened by more
than two decades of normal wear and tear -- might have been vulnerable to
the type of debris strike experienced during Columbia's Jan. 16 launch.
"A normal event which it
could have survived at age 10, but maybe she couldn't survive it at age
21," Gehman said.
Gehman and other board members
also said Columbia's wing might have been more susceptible to damage due to
an unusual steering adjustment performed by Columbia's left-hand solid
rocket motor during the shuttle's climb into orbit.
Before launch, engineers
programmed the shuttle's boosters to make the second-largest steering
adjustment in shuttle program history about 62 seconds into flight. The
maneuver was made to counteract a high wind shear at the point during which
the shuttle would be placed under maximum aerodynamic pressure.
The adjustment placed greater
stress on the left side of the shuttle 20 seconds before the foam debris
broke free from the ship's external tank and struck the leading edge of the
"So we're trying to see if
there's any reasoning or commonality in this thing that might give us an
indication of greater stress on Columbia on launch than would normally be
seen," board member Air Force Maj. Gen. John Barry said.
The board also revealed that
minor damage was done to Columbia's tank during last August when it was
disconnected from a set of solid rocket boosters. The boosters were needed
for another mission that was launched in November.
Barry said the damage, which
occurred in the area where foam debris broke off the tank, was fixed, and
that the repairs passed inspections. Nevertheless, the investigators want to
determine if the damage could have been a factor in the accident.
"This is one of those
things that stands out as a little bit different and may or may not have
contributed to the mishap," Barry said.
Meanwhile, investigators also
are intrigued by pinhole damage done to the reinforced carbon carbon panels
during six missions between 1991 and 2001. The U-shaped panels protect the
leading edge of the wing from temperatures that can reach 3,000 degrees
Fahrenheit during atmospheric re-entry.
Specifically, the investigators
want to know whether corrosion could have cropped up and gone undetected
during routine visual inspections of the exterior of the so-called RCC
panels, weakening the shuttle's aluminum wings.
"Think of termites. Or if
any of you are boaters, it's blisters on the fiberglass," Gehman said.
"This RCC is built up in layers. The oxidization gets inside and starts
opening up gaps from the inside out. And so the problem is when you do a
visual inspection of the outside you never see it."
The board's complex detective
work is expected to continue for several weeks if not months. At the same
time, thousands of people still are scouring East Texas and other areas
further west to locate Columbia debris.
To date, 39,300 pounds of
Columbia debris have been recovered, or about 18 percent or 19 percent of
the vehicle, Gehman said.
Four-thousand people still are
involved in the search on a daily basis and investigators hope the onset of
spring will yield additional pieces to the puzzle.
of the debris that we're really interested in is under snow," Gehman
said. "And we're hoping when people get outdoors, and farmers start
plowing fields, and the snow melts, that more interesting debris farther
west will start to emerge."
-- An attempt may have been made to override Columbia's autopilot in the
final few seconds of its doomed flight, according to information received
Sunday by the space shuttle's accident investigation board.
But, as an official close to
the investigation stressed: "The data are really suspect. They can't
ensure the integrity of any of the data, and some of the stuff that they're
saying may be inaccurate or misinterpreted."
A NASA spokeswoman, Eileen
Hawley, said the possible attempted override could have been unintentional;
in other words, one of the pilots may have bumped the stick.
ABC News reported Sunday
evening that data showed one of the crew may have tried to take over the
space shuttle before its destruction above Texas on Feb. 1.
For weeks, in an attempt to
reconstruct what went wrong during Columbia's re-entry, NASA and other
experts have been analyzing data that were transmitted in the final 32
seconds of flight.
The last two seconds of data,
which follow 25 seconds of nothing, indicate there was an input to disengage
the autopilot system, the official said.
The data also suggest that the
four steering jets that automatically began firing to try to counteract the
increased drag on the left side of the spacecraft were no longer able to
counteract the forces, the official said.
"It kind of indicates the
orbiter was out of control, basically," the official said.
The autopilot never went off,
possibly because there was not enough time for it to do so -- or perhaps
because there was no attempt by the crew to override it, the official said.
"Had you had more data
after two seconds, you might know whether it would have gone off or
not," the official said. It is difficult if not impossible to know,
with certainty, "whether that was unintentional or whether it was
intentional or whether it even occurred at all," the official said.
Hawley pointed out that even
before Columbia started re-entering the atmosphere, commander Rick Husband
accidentally bumped the stick but quickly corrected for it.
Minutes later, "there is
some evidence that the stick may have been bumped" again, Hawley said.
But she added that part of the
problem is the data are intermittent, with a high error rate, "and to
draw any conclusions from it would be really wrong."
The data also suggest there
were no readings coming from Columbia's left orbital maneuvering system in
the final two seconds, which could mean it broke off or was badly damaged,
said the official close to the investigation.
NASA is reconstructing, as best
it can, the timeline of Columbia as it flew across the Pacific, crossed the
California coast and continued its descent over Nevada and New Mexico and
Texas, en route to a Florida touchdown following a 16-day science mission.
All seven astronauts were
The board, meanwhile, suspects
that the searing gases of atmospheric re-entry probably entered the shuttle
through a breach along the leading edge of the left wing. The blowtorch-like
gases may have snaked their way through the wing and streamed out the left
main gearing landing compartment.
Earlier in the investigation,
the board believed the gases may have entered this left wheel well, but are
more inclined now to think the gases were actually coming out, the official
"It's a strong theory. It
has a certain amount of support," the official said.
The board is still trying to
determine whether launch debris caused the breach. Insulating foam or other
debris broke off Columbia's external fuel tank barely a minute into the
flight on Jan. 16 and struck the left wing.
On the NetColumbia accident investigation board: www.caib.us
The warhead of a long-range missile test-fired by North Korea was found
in the U.S. state of Alaska, a report to the National Assembly revealed
According to a U.S.
document, the last piece of a missile warhead fired by North Korea was found
in Alaska. Former Japanese foreign minister
Taro Nakayama was quoted as saying in the report. "Washington, as well as
Tokyo, has so far underrated Pyongyang's missile capabilities".
The report was the culmination of month long activities of the
overseas delegation to five countries over the North Korean nuclear crisis.
The Assembly dispatched groups of lawmakers to the United States, Japan,
China, Russia and European Union last month to collect information and
opinions on the international issue.
The team sent to Japan, headed by Rep. Kim Hak-won
of the United Liberal Democrats, reported, `Nakayama said Washington has
come to put more emphasis on trilateral cooperation between South Korea,
Japan and the United States since it recognized that the three countries are
within the range of North Korean missiles.
According to the
group dispatched to the U.S., American politicians had a wide range of
opinions over the resolution of the nuclear issue, from a peaceful
resolution to a military response.
Doves, such as Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and
co-chairman of the Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation, called for a
peaceful settlement of the current confrontation, by offering food, energy
and other humanitarian aid to the poverty-stricken country, while urging the
North to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Rep. Markey also said the North should return to the nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty and the U.S. should make a nonaggression pact with
the communist North.
Hardliners, however, warned that the North's possession of nuclear
weapons will instigate a nuclear race in the region, provoking Japan to also
acquire nuclear weapons. Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, an Illinois Republican, said
the U.S. might have to bomb the Yongbyon nuclear complex should the North
try to export its nuclear material to other countries.
Over the controversy concerning the withdrawal of U.S. forces stationed
here, most American legislators that the parliamentary delegation met said
U.S. troops should stay on the peninsula as long as the Korean people want,
the report said.
find melted metal on heat shield tiles By
Kelly Young FLORIDA
HOUSTON -- Analysts combing
through shuttle Columbia's wreckage found molten aluminum and stainless steel
inside the front edge of the orbiter's left wing and aluminum residue sprayed
on the underside of both wings.
"I don't know exactly
whether that is coming from the event or whether that's coming from re-entry
heating," said Roger Tetrault, a member of the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board, the group examining the Feb. 1 shuttle accident.
Experts analyzing the debris at
Kennedy Space Center found this weekend that a thick soot-like substance on
tiles on the wing had a high concentration of aluminum, the same metal that
forms the orbiter's support structure.
"That deposit has never been
seen on any previous flights," Tetrault said.
Tetrault said teams are not
recovering much of the aluminum structure, so the soot may show what happened
They also saw some of the molten
metal on the underside of the right wing, but not to the same extent.
Behind the front part of the
wing, investigators said both melted aluminum and stainless steel were found.
The structure that supports the reinforced carbon-carbon is made of stainless
steel, which melts at about 2,500 degrees. Tetrault said that melted metal was
found on fittings that support the four reinforced carbon-carbon panels
closest to the body of the orbiter. More metal was found on the inside of
panels farther out on the wing.
The front edge of the aluminum
wing is flat. Attached to the front of each wing is a series of 22 U-shaped
pieces made of reinforced carbon-carbon designed to limit heating of the
aluminum structure to 350 degrees. Between each segment is a seal, made of the
same material. The seals allow the segments to move side to side and expand
slightly under the intense pressure and heat they bear during reentry. A
coating is applied to further protect the carbon-carbon surface. The area has
been hit by debris before during a 1992 mission.
Investigators said they are
looking at one of the seals being damaged during the mission.
The board has said they believe
that somehow, superhot gas that builds up beneath the shuttle on re-entry
found a way inside the left wing.
During launch, pieces of foam
insulation on the external tank fell off about 80 seconds after liftoff and
struck the left side of the orbiter.
Investigators said it appears
Columbia's left tires blew apart, but probably after NASA lost communication
with the doomed orbiter Feb. 1.
Teams have recovered all six
tires on the orbiter. Tires from the right side of the orbiter look relatively
intact. The two from the left-hand side appear mangled.
"We believe it is possible .
. . that tires on the left side blew very late in this event," Tetrault
At this point, the board believes
that the Michelin-made tires were whole when NASA lost communication with
Columbia. If the tires had blown apart, it probably would have meant a
catastrophe before NASA actually saw one.
"This could have been a
rupture (of the landing gear door) that occurred, but again it would not have
occurred until extremely late in the event," Tetrault said. "I would
not speculate that it blew out the door or blew out the landing gear."
Pyrotechnics inside the landing
gear door would have exploded had temperatures reached about 600 degrees.
Due to discolorations on some
debris they recovered, investigators said it looks like a blast of very hot
air blew out of the left wheel well that houses the landing gear and moved
across the main body of the orbiter, said Adm. Hal Gehman, chairman of the
It may have been related to the
tires blowing late into the accident, Tetrault said.
The left inboard wing flap
controller had a hole four inches by six inches, but investigators think this
came from re-entry, not from the accident itself. Hydraulic fluid leaking from
the hole showed no major overheating, Tetrault said.
In addition, hydraulic fluid
appears to have splattered across some pieces of debris, as evidenced by red
Gehman announced Tuesday several
officials who will testify in front of the board during a public hearing
Thursday: Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore, Johnson Space Center Deputy
Director Randy Stone, filling in for Director Jefferson Howell, Harry
McDonald, chairman of the Shuttle Independent Analysis Panel in 1999, Boeing
foam expert Keith Chong.
Control in Houston lost all communication with the space shuttle Columbia
during its return to Earth on Feb. 1, they knew something was terribly
In years past, the
officials at Mission Control may not have blinked an eye when they lost a
signal for a few minutes. But this was different because the communication
blackout that used to occur as the shuttle entered the atmosphere no longer
Back when a
communication blackout was normal, the signal always came back after a few
minutes, and Mission Control would hear the astronauts' voices again and
would continue monitoring data.
This time, when
communications and tracking of the shuttle were lost at 9 a.m. EST at an
altitude of 203,000 feet over north central Texas, it never returned. The
space shuttle had broken apart.
The media and other
information services still report a communication blackout as a routine part
of the shuttle's reentry into the atmosphere. But the blackout hasn't been
an issue since December 1988, according to Roger Flaherty, deputy program
manager for NASA's Tracking and Date Relay Satellite System.
When the shuttle
enters the Earth's atmosphere, tremendous heat builds up around the shuttle,
and portions of the spacecraft's exterior reach 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
The heat strips electrons from the air around the space shuttle, enveloping
it in a sheath of ionized air that used to block communications anywhere
from four to 16 minutes. The ionized particles around the shuttle are from
ionization of the atmospheric gases as they are compressed and heated by the
shock, or heated within the adjacent boundary layer. When the electron
density rose high enough to exceed the critical plasma density of the link
frequency, the result was significant attenuation or blackout.
The maximum heat
buildup for Columbia probably occurred somewhere near an altitude of 200,000
feet while it was traveling around 12,500 miles per hour, which is about the
time communication was lost for good.
Before the end of
1988, the shuttle entered blackout about 30 minutes before touchdown
anywhere from 400,000 feet to about 200,000 feet. Radio signals between the
spacecraft and the ground could not penetrate that sheath of ionized
John Glenn reported
in Newsweek that when he was watching the NASA channel in
anticipation of the Columbia landing, he knew the agency had serious
“Back in the old
days, it was normal to lose contact for about four minutes during the
highest heat of reentry, but the blackout period now is less,” wrote the
former astronaut, who first orbited the Earth in 1962. “I turned to my wife,
Annie, and said, ‘This is big-time trouble.’”
Of course, the
blackout period is non-existent now, but older missions faced the loss of
“In a sense, the
blackout — the famous blackout — was part of space lore, the way it
happened,” Flaherty said.
Mercury, Gemini and
Apollo experienced several-minute blackouts during their atmospheric reentry
phases. According to an article in The Interplanetary Network Progress
Report from California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, NASA conducted several experiments in the 1960s involving Earth
atmospheric reentry. The article, written by D. D. Morabito, stated that the
use of an X-band telemetry system over lower frequency bands was proposed.
Another scientist compared predicted and measured communications blackout
boundaries of atmospheric density and velocity profiles for Apollo.
The solution came
about after NASA launched the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System. The
first satellite was launched in 1983, and the next two went into orbit in
1988 and 1989. (One TDRS satellite was lost in the 1986 Challenger
accident.) The system was built to provide communications for all space
flights, from launch to reentry.
When the shuttle
enters the atmosphere, the brunt of the heat is on the underside of the
orbiter. The thermo protection tiles are facedown, so the plasma or
ionization layer is open at the trailing end behind the shuttle, providing a
hole through which communications with the shuttle can be maintained with
the TDRS. Even if the TDRS satellites had been in use when Mercury, Gemini
and Apollo were in flight, the spacecrafts still may have experienced
blackouts because of their body shapes.
“The worst was the
old Mercury, Gemini and Apollo because they were round hemispherical domes,”
said John Wickman, president of Wickman Spacecraft and Propulsion.
The shuttle is
shaped more like a plane, so as it comes into the atmosphere belly-down,
“the coolest part of the orbiter has no plasma or radiation that will
interfere with the radio frequency communications from that edge,” Flaherty
NASA found that if
the radio signal was sent back up to the satellite and then down to the
ground, they didn't even need to try to communicate through the plasma
occurs, but we don't try to send that signal through that layer. We send it
up through the atmosphere, so we're sending it away from the layer. The
layer is on the bottom where the orbiter is the hottest,” said Catherine
Watson, NASA spokesperson.
The orbiter, or
shuttle, has multiple conformed, S-band medium-gain antennas on a blister on
the skin of the orbiter, according to Flaherty.
“The top of the
orbiter has four S-band antennas — front left, front right, rear left, rear
right — so that those antennas are commanded to optimize communications
paths,” he said.
primarily uses the S-band at 1,700 to 2,300 MHz for communications during
entry. It supports voice, commands, telemetry and data files. The data rate
is up to 192 kbps. The shuttle uses the Ku band (13.755 and 15.003 GHz) for
communications while in space.
As the orbiter
changes attitudes while preparing for landing, it automatically selects the
antenna to optimize the communications link with the satellite. However, the
antenna selection can be controlled from the ground if needed.
Even with a drop
out here or there, communications is much more fluid than a total blackout
NASA did not direct
all of its plans for TDRS around solving this specific blackout, however.
“I think it was
sort of serendipitous,” Flaherty said. “I think it may have been something
people had thought about and said, ‘Gee, you know we're not shooting up
through the plasma layer anymore, and there's a possibility by looking down
on the orbiter here that we may be able to maintain communications right
through what was then known as the blackout period.”
NASA launched what
is known as the TDRS-3 satellite on Sept. 30. 1988, and the first two
missions shortly after that would not have experienced the blackout period.
The satellite's position as “west” supported shuttle communications.
satellites have been launched into orbit since 1983. The ground station for
this communications network is located in White Sands, N.M. This station
contains the ground terminal communications relay equipment for the command,
telemetry, tracking and control equipment of the TDRS.
“It's a very, very
reliable system,” Flaherty said. “We're 99.91 percent proficient and that is
for every minute of scheduled data over minutes of actual support.”
Each TDRS satellite
contains two steerable single access antennas that provide dual-frequency
single-access telecommunications at K and S band. The space-to-ground link
antenna on the satellite provides the link between TDRS and the ground
station. It's a two-meter parabolic reflector antenna. The satellite also
has multiple-access antennas and an S-band omni directional antenna.
The initial fleet
of TDRS satellites (TRDS 1-7) was built by TRW of Redondo Beach, Calif., but
the last three (TDRS 8, I, J) were built by Boeing Satellite Systems.
“TDRS 8 is an
operational spacecraft, and TDRS I and J have been launched and are in the
process of being accepted by NASA at this time,” Flaherty said.
TDRS 8 was the
first of the second-generation replenishment satellites.
With TDRS being
fully operational, Mission Control was receiving telemetry and voice
communications up until the moment the shuttle was seen breaking apart. With
no blackout, continual communications may help investigators solve the
mystery of the accident.
communications, the more data you have, the better off we always are. For
instance, we have gone to using TDRS and space-based relay to support
launching vehicles,” Flaherty said. “We can get launch data throughout the
entire launch period. If something does go wrong at least you can go back
and look at the data and see if there are any telltales.”
As Columbia entered
California air space, in fact, the first hints of trouble had surfaced,
according to NASA. In the final seven minutes of the flight, Jeff Kling, the
maintenance, mechanical arm and crew systems officer, reported a sudden and
unexplained loss of data from spacecraft sensors, according to transcripts
released by NASA.
“I just lost four
separate temperature transducers on the left side of the vehicle, the
hydraulic return temperatures,” Kling said.
The flight director
then asked if there was anything common to the sensors. Kling said there was
no commonality, suggesting a general failure.
At that point,
everything appeared normal with shuttle flight control.
Kling then said
that landing gear tires had lost pressure.
Houston. We see your tire pressure messages, and we did not copy your last.”
Husband: “Roger, buh…”
He was cut off at
communicator tried a series of radio calls to Columbia with no response.
(CBS) In a
videotape released Friday by NASA, Columbia astronauts in the final minutes of
their lives sipped drinks, put on their gloves, joked and mugged for the camera,
unaware of the catastrophe awaiting them.
The cassette was found
among shuttle wreckage three weeks ago.
"Looks like a
blast furnace," commander Rick Husband comments to his crew, referring to
the bright flashes outside the cockpit windows as Columbia re-entered the
getting some G's (gravity)," replies his co-pilot, William McCool.
"Let go of the card and it falls."
don't want to be outside now," Husband adds.
Says Laurel Clark,
seated behind them: "What, like we did before?" drawing a big laugh.
The digital tape was
discovered near Palestine in East Texas on Feb. 6 — five days after the
shuttle disintegrated just 16 minutes away from its landing in Florida. The
investigation board suspects a breach somewhere in the left wing let in
superheated gases. The 13 minutes of tape also shows flight engineer Kalpana Chawla. All four are
clad in orange flight suits, with their helmet visors up, and seen going through
routine checklist activities in the cockpit. The other three astronauts were
seated on the lower deck.
As CBS News
Correspondent Bob Orr reports, when the tape opens, Columbia is 500,000 feet
above the Pacific, west of Hawaii. The astronauts are routinely preparing for
landing. Chawla is running down the reentry checklist.
"We have ten
minutes to get gloves on, Laurel do you need help?" asks Chawla.
almost, replies Clark.
"After you get
yours, then I'll get mine," says Chawla.
As astronaut Clark
takes the video camera from co-pilot McCool, Commander Husband tells the crew
Columbia is closing in on the Earth's atmosphere.
Husband is seen
sipping from a drink pouch and, along with McCool, putting on gloves. The two
women take turns smiling for the camera; Clark gives an especially wide grin.
The astronauts are
enjoying the ride and heading for home, clearly unaware that the same hot gasses
are about to destroy the orbiter.
NASA broadcast the
tape on its television service early Friday afternoon. It was introduced by
astronaut Scott Altman, who commanded the previous mission of Columbia, a year
earlier. Altman said of the more than 250 tapes flown during the doomed flight,
this was the only one recovered that had any recording left on it.
Because of heat
damage, the tape ends four minutes before the first sign of trouble, said an
official close to the accident investigation who spoke on condition of
NASA acknowledged the
existence of the tape on Tuesday. Officials wanted to make sure all the
astronauts' families saw it before broadcasting it to the public. It holds no
investigative value, officials said.
The tape shows routine
flight-deck activity beginning around 8:35 a.m. Feb. 1 and continues until 8:48
a.m., when the shuttle was over the eastern Pacific, southwest of San Francisco,
at an altitude of less than 300,000 feet.
Eleven minutes later,
Mission Control lost contact with Columbia. And 32 seconds after that, all
communication ceased as the spaceship shattered over Texas.
The video was shot
with a small onboard camera mounted to the right of McCool, at the front of the
cockpit, NASA said. He removes the camera at one point and hands it to Clark to
Columbia was 38 miles
up, traveling Mach 18 or 18 times the speed of sound, when it came apart. The
fact that the video cassette was preserved is "remarkable," said
Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Florida State
"Some might view
it as a miracle," Figley said. "Suddenly here is a postcard of these
men and women." He added that the video should provide additional peace of
mind for the astronauts' families, because it shows them happy and doing what
NASA officials said
Husband was notified about the tank debris that smacked into the left wing
barely a minute after liftoff on Jan. 16 and also the results of the engineering
analysis that concluded any damage to the thermal tiles posed no safety threat.
Jeffrey Kling, who was the first one in Mission Control to report problems in
the left wing during Columbia's plunge through the atmosphere, said earlier this
week that Husband seemed to be satisfied with the engineering results that were
relayed to him.
The astronauts seated
in Columbia's lower deck were Michael Anderson, David Brown and the first
Israeli in space, Ilan Ramon.
NASA Mishap Response Status #07 Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003 - 6 p.m.CST Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas
Investigators are searching the
area of Caliente, Nev., for what could be a piece of Space Shuttle Columbia
debris believed to have been tracked by air traffic control radar after it was
shed early in the spacecraft's descent over California and Nevada Feb. 1.
Video imagery of Columbia's entry
provided to NASA was analyzed by imagery, trajectory and ballistics experts. The
results of that analysis were then provided to National Transportation Safety
Board officials who reviewed air traffic control radar imagery in that area
during the time of Columbia's descent. The review resulted in what is believed
to be a significant radar track of a piece of debris as it fell to Earth. As a
result, a search of the Caliente area near the Nevada-Utah border is under way
using Civil Air Patrol assets. A search using additional means also may be
Similar work to narrow the possible
locations of other debris believed to have been shed by Columbia above the U.S.
Southwest continues, although no other areas have yet been identified for
About 25,000 pounds of Columbia
debris is now at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That total is about 11 percent
of the orbiter's weight as it descended from orbit. About 5,600 items from the
spacecraft currently are at KSC.
The search for Columbia debris
continues in Texas and Louisiana. So far, no confirmed Shuttle debris has been
found west of Granbury, Texas, near Fort Worth.
The Forest Service says more than
2,100 searchers should be in the field by Friday. They'll be a part of more than
100 teams based in Corsicana, Nacogdoches, Hemphill and Palestine, Texas. Bad
weather hampered the search on Thursday. The search is being intensified to beat
the area's spring bloom, which would make debris harder to find.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe
Thursday re-emphasized the Agency's intent not to launch another Space Shuttle
until the cause or probable cause of the Columbia accident is found and
At a press conference from Stennis
Space Center in Mississippi, O'Keefe told reporters NASA would do nothing to
compromise the Agency's emphasis on safety. "Nothing I'm aware of that
would suggest than anything we did should cause us to change the way we do
business" in that area, he said.
NASA's position is still that there
is no favorite theory about the cause of the Columbia accident. "It's all
on the table," O'Keefe said in response to a reporter's question.
For more information about NASA on
the Internet, see:
Johnson Space Center Shuttle Mission/Space Station Status Reports and other
information are available automatically by sending an Internet electronic mail
message to email@example.com. In the body of the message
(not the subject line) users should type "subscribe hsfnews"
(no quotes). This will add the e-mail address that sent the subscribe message to
the news release distribution list. The system will reply with a con firmation
via e-mail of each subscription. Once you have subscribed you will receive
future news releases via e-mail.
"Columbia Began Losing Pieces Over California" THE ASSOCIATED PRESS - Feb. 18, 2003, Filed at 8:38 p.m. ET
SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP)
Space shuttle Columbia began losing pieces over the California coast well before it disintegrated over
Texas, the accident investigation board reported Tuesday, finally
confirming what astronomers and amateur skywatchers have been saying from Day
But board member James
Hallock, a physicist and chief of the Transportation Department's aviation safety division, said the
fragments were probably so small they burned up before reaching the
He said the conclusion that the space shuttle was shedding
pieces a full six minutes before it came apart over Texas was based on images
of the doomed flight. Astronomers and amateurs on the West Coast
photographed and videotaped the shuttle's final minutes.
``Obviously, it would be very important to understand what those
pieces are, particularly the ones that started falling off at the very beginning,'' because they would shed light on the earliest
stages of the breakup, he said.
However, Hallock said the pieces that came off early did not
seem to be very big, judging from the light reflected off them.
``For us to find something that far back along the path, I think
it's going to have to be a pretty substantial piece of the shuttle
itself,'' he said.
Moreover, he added: ``That's a lot of area to be looking. ... We
have the Grand Canyon area and all of the areas of Southern
California, the mountainous area and stuff like this, that even if we could home
in on some of these things, it's going to be very difficult to find
it. But we sure would like to see it.''
In their second news conference in as many weeks, the board
members also said they are not convinced the debris that hit the left wing
shortly after liftoff on Jan. 16 was insulating foam from the external
fuel tank. It is possible the debris was actually ice or much heavier insulating material behind the foam, they said.
Hallock said the suspected breach in Columbia's left wing had to
have been bigger than a pinhole, in order to allow the superheated
gases surrounding the ship to penetrate the hull.
In other news:
-- The board said it hopes to hold its first public hearing next
week, possibly on Feb. 27, to listen to non-NASA experts who have
theories about what destroyed the shuttle. The hearing will be held
somewhere in the Houston area. The board has been criticized by some U.S.
lawmakers as being too closely tied to NASA.
``We will invite experts who are not associated with any U.S.
government program who have theories or hypothesis, who have written to us
or provided research documents, to express to us their opinions,''
said board chairman Harold Gehman Jr., a retired Navy admiral. ``That
way we get input ... not by any government agency.''
-- The board split into three teams Tuesday -- materials,
operations and technology -- and began delving into what may have caused a
breach in the shuttle's left wing.
-- An Air Force telescope in Maui took pictures of Columbia as
the shuttle orbited overhead during its mission. Gehman said the
images were being analyzed and it was too soon to know whether they may hold
clues to the shuttle's demise.
-- An external fuel tank identical to the one used by Columbia
has been impounded at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and
will be tested. If any destructive testing is performed, engineers need
to be careful because ``we only get one shot at it,'' Gehman said.
-- Nearly 4,000 pieces of debris have been shipped to Florida's
Kennedy Space Center, of which 2,600 have been identified and cataloged,
Gehman said. Investigators hope to partially assemble the pieces to
help them figure out what happened to the space shuttle. An additional
10,000 pieces are headed to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and
It is impossible to calculate how much of Columbia the recovered
pieces represent, the board said. In terms of weight, it represents
only a tiny portion because so much of the wreckage is small, like fragments
In the more than two weeks since the tragedy, the NASA-appointed
board has publicly put forth just one hypothesis: that the superheated
gases surrounding the spaceship during its descent through the
atmosphere penetrated the left wing.
Still a major focus of the investigation is the supposed 2
1/2-pound chunk of rigid insulating foam that broke off Columbia's
external fuel tank shortly after liftoff and slammed into the left wing at
more than 500 mph.
NASA concluded while Columbia was still in orbit that any damage
caused by the foam was slight and posed no safety threat. But engineers
are now redoing their analysis to see if they made a mistake or missed something.
Air Force Maj. Gen. John Barry, a member of the investigating
board, identified four previous launches, as far back as 1983, in which
foam from the same part of the fuel tank struck a shuttle's thermal
tiles. ``We've got some backtracking to do,'' he said.
The board has yet to order any foam or thermal tile impact
tests, Gehman said. Over the years, NASA has shot .22-caliber bullets, BB
pellets and even ice at tiles, and the board wants to read up on this
``enormous library of testing'' first, he said.
``Before we go ordering NASA to do things, the first thing we're
doing is getting smart,'' Gehman said.
The board began its work within hours of Columbia's breakup on
Feb. 1. The shuttle was traveling at 18 times the speed of sound and was
just minutes away from a Florida touchdown when contact was lost. All
seven astronauts aboard were killed.
The newest member of the 10-person panel, former Air Force
Secretary Sheila Widnall, will join her colleagues later this week.
Additional members are being sought to include more scientific experts and
quell criticism from members of Congress who contend the board is not independent enough of NASA.
- (KRT) - New information from 32 seconds of garbled data show that
shuttle Columbia's flight control system was still trying to guide the orbiter
even after NASA lost contact with the ship, the agency said Saturday.
NASA has been working feverishly
to resurrect information from the data, which Columbia continued to transmit
after Mission Control lost contact with the seven-member crew on Feb. 1.
Much of the data may be too
unreliable to be useful. But officials said Saturday that they have retrieved
enough credible information to determine that two more jets were firing on
Columbia's right side when Commander Rick Husband was cut off in mid-sentence
NASA could not say precisely when
the thrusters fired in that 32-second timeframe. But the new jets are
different from two others - located on the right, rear of the vehicle - that
were known to be firing about 1 1/2 seconds before contact was lost at 8:59
a.m. EST while the ship soared over Texas.
It's unclear what the new
information means about the status of the crew in that 32-second period, and
it does not shed light on what caused the shuttle to break apart, killing
astronauts Husband, William McCool, Mike Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla,
Laurel Clark and David Brown.
But the data show Columbia was
fighting fiercely to maintain control in its final seconds.
"It tells them the computers were
still trying to do what they're supposed to do," said NASA spokesman Kyle
Herring. "These two additional jets were trying to compensate for the
increasing drag on the left."
At the moment contact was lost,
Columbia was in a planned maneuver meant to slow the ship by pointing its left
wing downward at a 57-degree angle. But something was causing additional drag
on the left side, and some of the ship's thrusters were firing on the right to
counteract the drag.
It's not clear what was causing
the problem, though officials are considering whether loss of heat-protective
tiles or a breach somewhere in the shuttle's aluminum skin was contributing.
As the investigation continues,
NASA announced Saturday that a main engine turbopump - burrowed 14 feet below
the surface - was located near Fort Polk in Louisiana. Officials also
identified one of the shuttle's main computers among the debris already taken
to Kennedy Space Center, but the general purpose computer is badly damaged and
missing its battery. It is not expected to provide any useful information,
Also Saturday, the search for
debris intensified in New Mexico, where workers picked through the dense
vegetation and steep slopes of the Embudito Canyon.
About 140 volunteers were
organized into teams of 10 to look for the source of a "whooshing" noise in
the air Feb. 1 as the spaceship headed for Texas. Hikers and residents had
reported the sound to officials after the ship broke apart over northcentral
Texas, said Peter Olson, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Public
Usually called upon to search for
lost hikers or hunters, the volunteers are well-trained to look for small
clues - such as candy bar wrappers - in the landscape. NASA told them to watch
out for potential debris as big as a clipboard or small as a credit card.
"They're used to looking for
physical items," said Olson, who was in the canyon where skies were cloudy and
temperatures hovered around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. "They've given us
descriptions of things like the (shuttle's heat-protective) tiles."
The teams planned to search a
two-square mile area of about 1,100 acres, which is littered with boulders,
prickly-pear cacti and sage.
To date, no confirmed pieces of
the shuttle have been found west of Fort Worth but NASA officials say they
have credible reports of debris coming off the spaceship before it broke up
Two possible pieces have been
retrieved from the Albuquerque area and sent to Barksdale Air Force Base in
Louisiana for further review, said NASA spokesman Alan Buis in Houston. But
it's not clear yet that they're genuine, and another 10 debris sightings in
Albuquerque were investigated and ruled out.
Anything that came off the shuttle
early could be crucial in helping investigators determine where the trouble
started on Columbia.
The Embudito Canyon is on the
outskirts of Albuquerque, nestled against the west side of the Sandia
Mountains. Olson said a residential neighborhood borders the canyon, which is
home to rabbits, snakes and other wildlife; coyotes and mountain lions can be
found further up the mountainside.
Earlier in the week, helicopters
from the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range had canvassed the area from the
sky, with no luck. Olson said the teams were working in a grid-like fashion on
the ground, walking close together.
"Hopefully, we'll find something,"
As debris collection continues,
the independent team investigating the accident spent Saturday in Louisiana at
the Lockheed Martin plant that manufactures the giant external tanks used on
the space shuttle. Tanks are under scrutiny because a 2.67-pound chunk of foam
insulation broke free from Columbia's tank during launch and struck the ship's
underbelly on the left side.
The team - led by retired Navy
Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. - was due back in Houston on Saturday evening, after
a quick road trip to several NASA facilities, including KSC. The Columbia
Accident Investigation Board also added a new member Saturday, Sheila Widnall.
Widnall is a professor of
aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and
a former secretary of the Air Force from 1993-97.
NASA unveils revised Columbia accident timeline BY WILLIAM
HARWOOD STORY WRITTEN FOR
CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION Posted: February 13, 2003
Just one minute and 24 seconds after reaching the
region of maximum aerodynamic heating off the coast of California, telemetry
from the shuttle Columbia shows the first sign of unusual heating in the
ship's left wing main landing gear wheel well, according to a dramatic new
accident timeline released today by NASA.
The timeline plots Columbia's
course from a point 400,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii to the
point over Texas where the last data from the stricken ship was transmitted.
Overlayed on the map and the shuttle's ground track are boxes showing all of
the unusual telemetry beamed back from the shuttle as it streaked eastward
The new timeline includes the
latitude and longitude of the orbiter at each point where telemetry was
transmitted, the altitude and velocity of the spacecraft at that time and
additional details about what each bit of telemetry actually indicated.
As the chart shows, re-entry began
in earnest at 8:44:09 a.m. as the shuttle fell into the discernible atmosphere
395,010 feet above the Pacific Ocean northwest of Hawaii. At 8:50:53 a.m.,
Columbia began encountering the region of peak heating at an altitude of
243,048 feet and a velocity of 24.1 times the speed of sound.
One minute and 24 seconds later,
at 8:52:17 a.m., telemetry indicated the start of an unusual rise in
temperature from a sensor on the left main landing gear brake line on the
inboard sidewall of the main landing gear wheel well. The shuttle's altitude
at that moment was 236,791 feet and its velocity was Mach 23.58. The shuttle
was well off the coast of California west of San Francisco at a 38.9 degrees
north latitude and 129.2 degrees west longitude.
Twenty-four seconds later, a
temperature sensor on a strut in the wheel well that faces the main landing
gear door began registering an unusual temperature increase. Starting at
8:52:59 a.m. and continuing for another 12 seconds, four temperature sensors
near the back of Columbia's left wing suddenly dropped off line. Wire bundles
leading to the sensors were routed along the left, or outboard, side of the
main landing gear wheel well before crossing in front of the well and into the
Moments later, in mission control
at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, mechanical systems officer Jeff Kling
noticed at least some of the unsettling telemetry.
"FYI, I've just lost four separate
temperature transducers on the left side of the vehicle, hydraulic return
temperatures," he told entry flight director Leroy Cain. "Two of them on
system one and one in each of systems two and three."
Cain: "Four hyd return temps?"
Kling: "To the left outboard and
left inboard elevon."
Cain: "OK, is there anything
common to them? DSC or MDM or anything? I mean, you're telling me you lost
them all at exactly the same time?"
Kling: "No, not exactly. They were
within probably four or five seconds of each other."
Cain: "OK, where are those, where
is that instrumentation located?
Kling: "All four of them are
located in the aft part of the left wing, right in front of the elevons,
elevon actuators. And there is no commonality."
Cain: "No commonality."
NASA officials said today the most
likely explanation for the temperature rise ultimately seen in the wheel well
was hot plasma circulating inside the wing from a breach, or penetration,
elsewhere. Such a breach could have damaged the hydraulic sensor wiring,
explaining the loss of data from systems at the back of the wing, while at the
same time explaining the rising temperatures in the wheel well.
That much is informed speculation.
That a breach occurred at some point well before breakup now seems all but
"Preliminary analysis by a NASA
working group this week indicates that the temperature indications seen in
Columbia's left wheel well during entry would require the presence of plasma
(super heated gas surrounding the orbiter during re-entry)," NASA said in a
"Heat transfer through the
structure as from a missing tile would not be sufficient to cause the
temperature indications seen in the last minutes of flight. Additional
analysis is underway, looking at various scenarios in which a breach of some
type, allowing plasma into the wheel well area or elsewhere in the wing, could
In any case, the next unusual
telemetry was transmitted at 8:53:31 a.m. as Columbia was passing 231,304 feet
above Sonoma County, Calif., at 23 times the speed of sound. Another rear
elevon hydraulic line temperature sensor failed "off-scale low."
More ominously, at 8:53:46 a.m.,
as the shuttle passed above Interstate 505 west of Sacramento, Calif., a
sensor on the left main gear brake line, mounted on a strut facing the landing
gear door, began registering an unusual, steady increase, jumping from 1.4
degrees Fahrenheit per minute to 5.5 degrees per minute. The temperature
recorded by brake line temperature sensor A continued increasing until loss of
Twenty-four seconds later, at
8:54:10 a.m., brake line temperature sensor B began showing an unusual
increase as Columbia passed above the Toiyabe National Forest. Ten seconds
after that, telemetry shows the shuttle's wing flaps, or elevons, began moving
in response to the ship's flight control system to counteract increasing
aerodynamic drag on the left side of the shuttle.
Just two seconds later, at 8:54:22
a.m., as Columbia neared the border of Nevada, two temperature sensors mounted
on the left side of the shuttle's fuselage above the left wing began
experiencing an unusual temperature rise. One went from the normal 1-degree
per minute increase to 7.6 degrees per minute while the other, located
slightly aft, showed a rise to 5.5 degrees per minute.
After two more anomalous
temperature readings while Columbia was streaking across Nevada, telemetry
indicates increasing aerodynamic drag at 8:55:21 a.m. By this point, the
shuttle had fallen to an altitude of 224,002 feet but its velocity was still a
blistering 21.9 times the speed of sound.
The end was just five minutes
Streaking across Arizona, a flurry
of readings painted an ever-worsening picture of problems in the shuttle's
left wing. Additional landing gear sensors recorded fast jumps in temperature,
a sensor on the underside of the left wing dropped off line followed a few
seconds later by a sensor on the upper side of the wing, both presumably due
to wiring damage elsewhere.
At 8:56:30 a.m., as Columbia
descended through 219,820 feet, the flight control system began the first of
four planned "roll reversals," or banks, to bleed off energy, routine
maneuvers to help a returning shuttle shed velocity. The first roll reversal
was completed at 8:56:55 a.m.
Just northwest of Albuquerque,
telemetry registered a "bit flip," or an anomalous reading, at 8:57:19 a.m.
from a left hand outboard landing gear tire pressure sensor. Five seconds
later, a second left outboard tire pressure sensor exhibited unusual readings.
Additional elevon trim motions
were recorded at 8:57:35 a.m. as the shuttle crossed 216,062 feet above
Interstate 40 at Mach 20.21. After additional telemetry hits, the data shows
the start of "sharp" elevon trim motions around 8:58:03 a.m. The timing is
approximate, but the flight control system is obviously struggling to maintain
the shuttle in the proper orientation.
At 8:58:32 a.m., left main landing
gear tire pressures and temperatures began dropping off line followed 14
seconds later by a decrease in the left inboard wheel temperature. At 8:58:39
a.m., Columbia's backup flight system computer issued an alarm calling the
crew's attention to the loss of tire pressure telemetry.
"And, uh, Hou..." shuttle
commander Rick Husband radioed. His transmission, however, was cutoff,
presumably because the shuttle's antennas did not have a clean line of sight
to NASA's communications satellite.
After additional readings from
other sensors recording anomalous data, the backup flight system issues a
final tire pressure alarm at 8:58:56 a.m. Ten seconds later, telemetry from a
"downlock" sensor indicates Columbia's left main landing gear had deployed. A
nearby "uplock" sensor, however, showed no change and flight controllers
believe the gear remain stowed through loss of signal.
"Flight data including gear
position indicators and drag information does not support the scenario of an
early deployment of the left gear," NASA said in a statement.
By this point in the timeline, the
aerodynamic drag was increasing at a rapid rate because of the deterioration
of the left wing.
Kling suddenly tells Cain: "We
just lost tire pressure on the left outboard and left inboard, both tires."
"And Columbia, Houston, we see
your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last," astronaut Charles
Hobaugh radioes the crew from Houston.
Cain: "Is it instrumentation,
Kling: "Those are also off-scale
Husband then makes what turns out
to be his final attempt to contact Houston around 8:59:28 a.m.:
"Roger, uh, buh..." Husband began
around 8:59:28 a.m. But this last transmission from the shuttle was cut off.
Seconds later, at 8:59:30 a.m., two of Columbia's right-firing yaw jets ignite
to assist the elevons in keeping the shuttle on course. One second after that,
data shows the elevons sweeping through their largest deflections yet. The
left elevon moved up 8.11 degrees.
One second after that, all data
was lost. At that point, the shuttle was roughly 200,767 feet up and traveling
at Mach 18.16 northeast of Abilene, Texas.
Just a minute or so after this
loss of signal, time-stamped video shot by the crew of an Apache helicopter
showed the tracks of multiple pieces of flaming debris arcing across the Texas
"Columbia out of communications at
present with mission control as it continues its course toward Florida," NASA
commentator James Hartsfield said at 9:01 a.m. Two minutes later he said,
"Fourteen minutes to touchdown for Columbia at the Kennedy Space Center.
Flight controllers are continuing to stand by to regain communications with
"Columbia, Houston, comm check,"
Hobaugh radioed at 9:03 a.m. And again seconds later, "Columbia, Houston, UHF
There was no reply.
February 7, 2003
Cosmic bolt probed in
shuttle disaster Scientists poring over 'infrasonic' sound waves
Federal scientists are looking for evidence that a bolt of electricity
in the upper atmosphere might have doomed the space shuttle Columbia as it
streaked over California, The Chronicle has learned.
Investigators are combing records from a network of ultra-sensitive
instruments that might have detected a faint thunderclap in the upper
atmosphere at the same time a photograph taken by a San Francisco
astronomer appears to show a purplish bolt of lightning striking the
Should the photo turn out to be an authentic image of an electrical
event on Columbia, it would not only change the focus of the crash
investigation, but it could open a door on a new realm of science.
"We're working hard on the data set. We have an obligation,"
said Alfred Bedard, a scientist at the federal Environmental Technology
Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. He said the lab was providing the data to
NASA but that it was too early to draw any conclusions from the sounds of
the shuttle re-entry.
The lab has been listening to the sounds of ghostly electromagnetic
phenomena in the upper atmosphere, dubbed sprites, blue jets and elves.
For some time, scientists have speculated on whether these events could
endanger airliners or returning spacecraft.
A study conducted 10 years ago for NASA found that there is a 1-in-100
chance that a space shuttle could fly through a sprite, although it
concluded that the consequences of such an event were unclear. And in
1989, an upper- atmospheric electrical strike "shot down" a
high-altitude NASA balloon 129,000 feet over Dallas.
NASA officials have said they are looking for a "missing
link" to explain the shuttle's breakup that killed seven astronauts
Saturday, and they are downplaying the theory that foam insulation falling
from the shuttle's extra tank may have contributed to the shuttle's
The little-known infrasound project at the Environmental Technology
Laboratory operates a network of sophisticated electronic ears that can
pick up subaudible thuds of waves crashing on either coast of the United
States and the hiss of meteors and spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere
thousands of miles away.
Sound waves of this nature are called "infrasonic" and are
below the range of human hearing but travel unimpeded for extraordinary
distances. Arrays of infrasonic sensors in the high Colorado plains east
of Boulder recently have been looking for the crackle of the ghostly
electromagnetic events in the Earth's upper atmosphere.
"We basically detect events at very long ranges," Bedard
said. But he stressed that it was too early to draw any conclusions from
sounds of the shuttle re-entry. Bedard said the acoustic sensors had
previously detected the re-entry of a space shuttle from Northwest Canada
to the Kennedy Space Center.
Originally, it was thought that the electrical charges in the thin
atmosphere 50 miles above Earth were too dispersed to create infrasound.
But Los Alamos National Laboratories physicist Mark Stanley said that, on
closer inspection, "we've seen very strong ionization in
sprites" indicating that there were enough air molecules ionized to
cause heating and an accompanying pulse -- a celestial thunderclap, as it
NASA administrators confirmed Thursday that the photograph, taken from
Bernal Heights in San Francisco by an amateur astronomer, is being
evaluated by Columbia crash investigators. However, Shuttle Program
Manager Ron Dittemore told reporters at a Houston news briefing that right
now NASA is trying only to verify "the validity" of the image.
The astronomer, who has asked that his name not be used, has declined
to release the digital image to the media. But earlier in the week, he
permitted Chronicle reporters to view the image and invited one to his
home Tuesday evening, when the camera, and a disk of the image, were
turned over to former shuttle astronaut Tammy Jernigan for transit to
The image was also e-mailed Tuesday evening to Ralph Roe Jr., chief
engineer for the shuttle program at Johnson Space Flight Center in
Dittemore would not say during the news conference whether NASA has
ruled in or ruled out one possible explanation for the photo: that the
image could have been caused by jiggling of the camera. It was a Nikon
M-880 mounted on a tripod. The automatically timed exposure of four to six
seconds was triggered by finger.
"We have to validate whether it is real," Dittemore said.
"This particular one is no different from the others. . . . It has
yet to be determined whether this is important to us or not."
NASA officials have stressed the importance of photographic, video or
debris evidence from the earliest moments of the shuttle's distress, which
sensors indicate began at about 5:53 a.m. above California. That's when
sensors in a wheel well blinked out, in the words of NASA investigators,
"as if someone cut a wire."
That is also roughly the time during which the amateur photographer
snapped his image of Columbia as it streaked across the sky north of San
Francisco. A precise time may be mapped by matching the photo and the
strange electrical signature to the crisp background field of stars.
Physicists have long jokingly referred to the lower reaches of the
ionosphere -- which fluctuates in height around 40 miles -- as the "ignorosphere,"
due to the lack of understanding of this mysterious realm of rarefied air
and charged electric particles.
The family of "transient" electrical effects occupy this part
of the sky, including sprites, which leap from the ionosphere to the tops
of thunderheads, and blue jets, which leap from thunderhead anvils to the
Streamers of static electricity can travel these realms at speeds 100
times that of ground lightning, or 20 million miles an hour.
Ten years ago, Walter Lyons, a consultant with FMA Research Inc. in
Fort Collins, Colo., conducted a study of sprite danger for NASA. "We
concluded that there is about 1 chance in 100 that a shuttle could fly
through a sprite. What impact, we didn't know for certain. It didn't
appear at this time that the energy would be enough to cause
But Lyons conceded that the "ignorosphere" is a mysterious
place that has yielded startling surprises. "Since then, with
research on electrical streamers, the discovery of blue jets, the doubt
has gone up," he said.
"There are other things up there that we probably don't know
about," Lyons said. "Every time we look in that part of the
atmosphere, we find something totally new."
LACK OF RESEARCH FUNDING
But the field is dominated by a small club of electrophysicists who
have seen their money for research dry up. Ironically, an experiment of
Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, aboard the doomed Columbia, was among the
last fully funded work conducted on sprites. Lyons, considered to be one
of the leading authorities, said he played a role in the design of the
To date, sprites have required the presence of a significant electrical
storm on the ground. As the shuttle passed over Northern California, there
were some heavy rain showers in the far north of the state, but none of
the wild weather normally associated with sprites.
Hearing a description of the purplish, luminous corkscrew in the San
Francisco photograph, Lyons said, "This was not a sprite event . but maybe it is another electrical phenomenon we don't know about."
Whether or not an electrical discharge might be involved in the demise
of Columbia, there is precedent for an event like this.
Scientists have observed interaction between a blue jet and a meteor.
And in December 1999, Los Alamos National Laboratories researcher David
Suszcynsky and colleagues, including Lyons, published an account of a
meteor that apparently triggered a sprite. Their account is published in
the Journal of Geophysical Research.
"It was a singular observation that had us all scratching our
heads," said Lyons. In the strange world of sprite and elf research,
scientists have documented one event in which some sort of high
atmospheric event "shot down" a high-altitude balloon over
On June 5, 1989, before the first sprite was ever photographed, a NASA
balloon carrying a heavy pack of instruments suffered "an
payload release" at 129,000 feet, according to Lyons. It landed in an
angry Dallas resident's front yard.
Investigators found scorch marks on the debris and considered it one of
the first bits of solid evidence that sprites exist. As a result of the
accident, NASA no longer flies balloons over thunderstorms.
Ironically, the balloon was launched from a NASA facility in Palestine,
Texas, one of the towns where debris from the space shuttle Columbia fell
Shuttle sensor found in Arkansas
By CARYN ROUSSEAU / Associated Press Writer
ROCK -- A state emergency official says a sensor from the
space shuttle Columbia
has been found in northwestern Arkansas.
sensor was the first piece of shuttle debris found in the state
since the spacecraft
disintegrated Saturday over eastern Texas, killing
all seven crewmembers
a clear ball about the size of a ping pong ball," Jennifer Gordon, a
spokeswoman for the
Arkansas Department of Emergency
Wednesday. "It says 'U.S. Space and Rocket
Center' on it. It's got
some little tiny batteries inside it and some
said the debris was found just north of Natural Dam, about
130 miles northwest of
Little Rock. Most of the debris has been found
in Texas and Louisiana,
but officials also are searching Arizona and
said the Crawford County emergency management
coordinator has the
piece and was waiting for directions from NASA
officials on what to do
Mike Swaim of the Crawford County Sheriff's Office said the office
received a call Tuesday
afternoon from a woman in the Natural Dam
area who told them she
had found a small plastic ball in her yard
bearing the words
"U.S. Space and Rocket Center."
warned that if any other Arkansans find debris they should
call local authorities
immediately because it may contain hazardous
than 12,000 pieces of debris from the shuttle have been
gathered. In Texas
alone, officials have identified 38 counties with
debris, while pieces
have turned up in two dozen Louisiana parishes.
scale makes it unprecedented," said Dave Bary, a spokesman for
Protection Agency, which is overseeing the
collection of debris.
"The debris field is so large covering so many counties I can't think of
anything historically that would compare to this."
shuttle was composed of about 2 million parts, many of which shattered into
pieces as small as a nickel.
CATASTROPHE IN THE SKY
NASA probes 'electric zap' mystery photo
Former astronaut wowed by image snapped by California astronomer
That was astronaut Tammy Jernigan's stunned reaction last night when
she viewed a photo of what appears to be space shuttle Columbia getting
zapped by a purplish electrical bolt shortly before it disintegrated
Former astronaut Tammy Jernigan
"It certainly appears very anomalous," Jernigan told the San Francisco
Chronicle. "We sure will be very interested in taking a very hard look at
The pictures were taken just seven minutes before Columbia's fatal
The Chronicle reports that top investigators of the disaster are now
analyzing the startling photograph to try to solve the mystery.
The photographer continues to request his name be withheld, adding he
would not release the image publicly until NASA has a chance to study it.
"[The photos] clearly record an electrical discharge like a lightning
bolt flashing past, and I was snapping the pictures almost exactly ...
when the Columbia may have begun breaking up during re-entry," the
photographer originally told the paper Saturday night.
Late yesterday, the space agency sent Jernigan – a former shuttle flyer
and now manager at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories – to the astronomer's
home to view the image, and have the Nikon camera brought to Houston
It was slated to be flown to the Johnson Space Center by a NASA T-38
jet this morning.
Jernigan reportedly asked the astronomer about the f-stop setting on
his lens, and how long he kept the shutter open – apparently some four to
six seconds. A tripod was used to steady the camera, and the shutter was
"In the critical shot," states the Chronicle, "a glowing purple rope of
light corkscrews down toward the plasma trail, appears to pass behind it,
then cuts sharply toward it from below. As it merges with the plasma
trail, the streak itself brightens for a distance, then fades."
"I couldn't see the discharge with my own eyes, but it showed up clear
and bright on the film when I developed it," the photographer previously
said. "But I'm not going to speculate about what it might be."
David Perlman, science editor for the Chronicle, called the photos
"They show a bright scraggly flash of orange light, tinged with pale
purple, and shaped somewhat like a deformed L," he wrote.
Space shuttle Columbia's rollout to the
launchpad (NASA photo)
Jernigan no longer works for NASA, though she's a veteran of five
shuttle missions in the 1990s. Ironically, on her final flight, the
orbiter's pilot was Rick Husband, who was at the helm at 9 a.m. EST
Saturday when Columbia broke apart during re-entry into the atmosphere.
"He was one of the finest people I could ever hope to know," Jernigan
to her NASA biography, Jernigan graduated from Stanford in 1981 with a
bachelor's degree in physics. She went on to earn master's degrees in
engineering science and astronomy from Stanford and UC-Berkeley
respectively. She also holds a doctorate in space physics and astronomy
from Rice University.
She's spent over 63 days above the Earth, completing 1,000 orbits, and
having walked in space for nearly eight hours during her final mission
aboard shuttle Discovery in 1999.
Before flying on shuttles, she was a research scientist in the
theoretical studies branch of NASA Ames Research Center, working on the
study of bipolar outflows in the region of star formations, gamma ray
bursters and shock-wave phenomena in the interstellar medium.
Regarding the Columbia disaster, the space agency is additionally
investigating reports of possible remnants found in the West, including
California and Arizona.
"Debris early in the flight path would be critical because that
material would obviously be near the start of the events," said Michael
Kostelnik, a NASA spaceflight office deputy.
February 4, 2003 Posted: 1:12 AM EST (0612 GMT)
HEMPHILL, Texas (CNN) --A large piece of the space shuttle Columbia's nose
cone was found Monday in a field in Sabine County, Texas, officials said
The nose was found off a main road just outside of Hemphill, Sabine
County Sheriff Tom Maddox said.
"They said it was in pretty good shape," one federal official said.
The nose cone's discovery was the latest major piece to come to light
as searchers continued probing a sprawling area Monday in an effort to
reassemble the events leading up to Columbia's destruction Saturday
In Nacogdoches, Texas, where more than 1,200 pieces had been found by
Monday, searchers discovered a 6- to 7-foot-long section of the Columbia's
cabin, said Nacogdoches County Thomas Kerrs. Local officers also were
looking into the possible discovery of more human remains, Kerrs said.
"We have received approximately six more unconfirmed reports of sites
that may contain human remains," Kerrs said. "We are in the process of
trying to investigate those sites now. They still remain a top priority."
Human remains had previously been found in other locations, said Bob
Cabana, director of flight crew operations at NASA's Johnson Space Center
in Houston. A former astronaut, Cabana said the discoveries took an
"Yesterday was probably the hardest day of my life," he said.
FBI evidence response teams from Houston, Dallas, Texas, and New
Orleans, Louisiana, are handling the recovery of the remains.
Israel is sending a military Rabbinate representative to ensure that if
remains are found of the country's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, they are
treated according to Jewish tradition and returned to Israel for burial,
the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported.
The Columbia's massive debris field grew even larger Monday as NASA
officials confirmed that pieces of the shuttle were being found farther
west than expected.
Michael Kostelnik, NASA deputy associate administrator, said a second
collection site was being established at Carswell Air Force Base near Fort
Worth, Texas, to assist investigators in that area.
The other collection site is at Barksdale AFB in northeast Louisiana
near Shreveport, chosen for its proximity to the debris field in east
Texas. Human remains are being taken there for identification.
Experts estimated Columbia broke up nearly 40 miles above Earth,
meaning the debris might be scattered as far west as Arizona.
"We want to get every last shred of evidence -- whether it be
documentation, whether it be witness statements, whether it be physical
evidence that may have fallen to the ground -- and put that into the
pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that we will start to assemble so we can
identify the root cause," said Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator
of space flight.
Hundreds of investigators and volunteers fanned out over Texas and
Louisiana searching a debris field of 28,000 square miles. Teams on
horseback and in four-wheel drive vehicles searched remote and heavily
The search region in Texas extends from Graceland County in the north
to Jefferson County in the south and from Eastland County in the west to
Sabine and Orange counties in the east.
Investigators used global positioning satellites to create maps of the
debris field and to mark spots where debris had been located.
At the huge Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Sabine River, which forms part
of the Texas-Louisiana border, search teams scoured the water where
witnesses reported seeing a piece of debris the size of a compact car go
The reservoir is used for drinking water, and after testing the water
for contaminants, state officials assured residents it is safe.
Other shuttle parts were reported in western Louisiana near the Texas
Several school districts in Texas were closed Monday while
investigators searched the campuses for debris.
Investigators are worried some pieces might never be found, a concern
because the shuttle fragments might be toxic and because NASA wants as
many pieces recovered as possible to help determine what caused the
debris might be toxic)
Despite repeated warnings of the potential toxicity, some townspeople
were driving shuttle pieces into town and delivering them to authorities,
said Sue Kennedy, Nacogdoches County emergency management chief.
Kerss also repeated warnings that some of the debris may contain
explosive materials. Officials have said that areas such as the shuttle's
cabin door and parachute deployment areas were rigged to be operated by
Mystery flashes spotted near shuttle
captures 'electrical phenomena' near Columbia's track
An astronomer who regularly photographs space shuttles when they pass over
the San Francisco Bay area has captured five "strange and provocative
images" of Columbia as it was re-entering the atmosphere.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports the images "appear to be bright
electrical phenomena flashing around the track of the shuttle's passage."
"They clearly record an electrical discharge like a lightning bolt
flashing past, and I was snapping the pictures almost exactly ... when the
Columbia may have begun breaking up during re-entry," the photographer, who
asked not to be identified, told the Chronicle.
The photos were snapped with a Nikon camera using a tripod.
Though the space scientist is not making the pictures public immediately, he
invited the newspaper to view the images on his home computer this weekend.
David Perlman, science editor for the Chronicle, calls the photos
"They show a bright scraggly flash of orange light, tinged with pale
purple, and shaped somewhat like a deformed L," Perlman writes. "The
flash appears to cross the Columbia's dim [white trail formed in the wake of the
craft], and at that precise point, the [white trail] abruptly brightens and
appears thicker and somewhat twisted as if it were wobbling."
"I couldn't see the discharge with my own eyes, but it showed up clear
and bright on the film when I developed it," the photographer said.
"But I'm not going to speculate about what it might be."
Meanwhile, an Australian astronomer working in California says he saw what
could be tiles falling off the orbiter as it flew over the Golden State.
"After the first few flashes I thought to myself that I knew the shuttle
lost tiles as it re-entered and quite possibly that was what was going on,"
Anthony Beasley told ABC News.
Beasley was north of Los Angeles when he made his report, indicating the
shuttle possibly began to disintegrate above California.
If Beasley is correct, it indicates the shuttle began to disintegrate on the
West Coast above California.
The Australian reported how the astronomer witnessed "a couple of
flashes" and "things clearly trailing" Columbia.
"I think that after the particularly bright event I started to wonder
whether or not things were happening how they should," Beasley said.
Space experts said tiles falling off the shuttle would be too small to be
detected by NASA radar.
"It leads in the direction that tile loss or some type of structural
loss like that was likely to be a cause," former shuttle astronaut Norm
Thagard told ABC. "But it still doesn't rule out other possibilities."
California Photographer, Astronomer See Shuttle
Astronomer Thought Shuttle Might Be Losing Tiles
UPDATED: 4:02 p.m. PST February 2, 2003
LOS ANGELES --
Southern California photographer took one of the last photos
the space shuttle Columbia before it broke apart.
Gene Blevins took
shots of Columbia crossing California before dawn
from a Caltech observatory hundreds of miles north
of Los Angeles.
got up at 4 a.m. Saturday for the shuttle's anticipated
flyover at 6 a.m. between the Sierra Nevada and the
White Mountains. He said it was the first time in
eight years that a space shuttle with a Florida
landing would pass over California, providing a special
opportunity for photographs.
As Columbia came into view some 47 miles above him, Blevins
began taking a series of shots and noticed something
He said he saw little red pieces breaking
away, then a big red flare coming underneath.
The picture was sent to the Associated Press and distributed to
newspapers around the country.
Those who were among the first to see the space shuttle Columbia
appear to be in trouble were watching from Eastern
California as it began trailing pieces of fiery debris
on its approach to a scheduled landing in Florida.
California Institute of Technology astronomer Anthony Beasley
said just before dawn Saturday he was observed the
shuttle's re-entry from outside his home in Bishop.
"As it tracked from west to east over the Owens Valley it
was leaving a bright trail. As it actually
moved over the valley, there were a couple of flashes. ... Then we
see there were things clearly trailing the orbiter, " Beasley said.
Although Beasley said he had never witnessed a shuttle re-entry
previously he immediately
thought Columbia might be losing some of some of the heat-resistant
that protect it during the fiery re-entry.
He later compared what he saw with two news photographers who
had arranged to photograph the re-entry through a
Caltech telescope at Bishop. They also had seen what
Beasley termed "the bright event" with the shuttle being trailed by
flashes of light that quickly disappeared.
Copyright 2003 by
Associated Press. All rights reserved. This
material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
For Texans, hearing was
believing that something wasn't quite right
By MICHAEL GRANBERRY / The
Dallas Morning News
Vaudie Dowdy of Tyler gazed out her big picture window, using a quiet
Saturday morning to think and pray.
Ken Foster sat at his kitchen table in Rowlett, reading newspaper stories
about war and terrorism.
Gary Hunziker and his wife stepped onto their patio in Plano to watch the
space shuttle Columbia fly overhead.
Suddenly, an explosion rattled windows and shook rooftops across North
Texas and East Texas. To people waking to the new day, it was the sound of the
sky falling. To the controller at NASA's mission control, it was a grim
"contingency." And for all Americans facing fears of war and
terrorism, the instinctive reaction was, "What next?"
"I have not heard a noise like that since the New London school blew
up," said Mrs. Dowdy, 82, referring to a natural gas explosion that
killed hundreds of students and teachers in East Texas in 1937. "A great
tragedy," she knew, had once again struck Texas - and the rest of the
Residents across East and North Texas shared her fear, anxiety and grief as
Saturday morning's calm was shattered by the explosion of the shuttle. In an
era of terrorism, and with the possibility of war approaching, many are
conditioned to expect the worst.
"It was a big shock," said Mr. Foster, 40, a banker. "It
sounded like something fell on the house. I said, 'Oh, hell - what is that!'
It was a 'BOOM!' - like none I've ever heard before. ... After Sept. 11, with
anything unusual like this, I immediately think we're being attacked. And
because of the cautious nature I've developed, it's made me somewhat unnerved
when anything like this occurs. I feel much more anxiety about things like
this, if only because they occur in a post-Sept. 11 context."
'The house shook'
In Carrollton, John Ferolito, 60, prepared for a bike ride with a cycling
club. The boom sounded overhead.
"The house shook, and the windows rattled," he said. "I ran
outside and looked in the alley and the yard. I thought, 'Maybe the shuttle
set off a sonic boom.'... I turned on the news and heard they'd lost contact
with the shuttle. I got that the same feeling I did in 1986 [with the
Challenger explosion] - that things weren't right."
In Plano, Mr. Hunziker, 49, and his wife went outside to view the shuttle.
"At that point, the shuttle was almost due south and had a very
substantial vapor trail," he said. "I had some field glasses... The
shuttle was flying east. I had a devil of a time finding it in the binoculars.
When I did, it was well east of us. I said to my wife, 'Look, chase jets have
already intercepted it.' It looked like two bright spots immediately to the
side and behind the shuttle. Twenty minutes later, I turned on the TV and
realized that what I saw wasn't chase jets at all - but debris from an
In East Plano, a fire of unknown origin started on the roof of a
condominium at Park Boulevard and Ridgewood Drive. It drew spasms of panicked
speculation. Frantic residents blamed the fire on debris raining down from the
shuttle, saying no other cause was possible. Officials were still
investigating the fire Saturday night and would not confirm the cause.
In Garland, Marcella Seeley, 47, a print production manager, said the blast
shook her from a sound sleep.
"It sounded like something had crashed into the window or the
roof," she said. "So I went outside, thinking some kids were playing
football and had hit my house with it. It was that loud. A few minutes later,
I turned on the TV and said, 'Oh, my God!' "
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was walking in her North Dallas neighborhood.
"And I heard this boom," she said. "I thought it was a sonic
boom, which I mentioned to my friend, with whom I was walking. It was so
pronounced, I thought it must be an F-16 training overhead. But then I came
home and turned on the television and found out quickly what it really
Within minutes, the senator telephoned NASA officials and offered them the
use of her Dallas office as an emergency command post.
At White Rock Lake, Murray Forsvall, a former journalist, said he and about
150 runners looked up from their morning jog to see "a wide vapor trail.
It was like a 50-yard line seat. We thought it was an airplane. But someone
said, 'It has a tail.' We continued to watch, and just seconds later it all
broke up into smaller pieces."
In East Texas, Larry Weisinger, 52, a Chandler pipe welder, was fishing on
Lake Palestine. He and his brother were lazily adrift on the calm waters,
hoping to hook a striped bass. "We were just sittin' there in our
boat," he said, "when all of a sudden, I said, 'What was that
sound?' It just kept rolling and thundering. I said, 'It sounds like Texas
Eastman just blew up," referring to the Eastman Kodak chemical plant in
Near Red Springs, Danny McDaniel, 54, an ex-Marine and barbecue cook, said
"a big boom" sent his dog scrambling for cover. "We didn't know
what was going on. The whole house shook. A friend of mine said it sounded
just like an earthquake." His neighbors said their dogs and livestock
behaved strangely even before the blast occurred.
Sound and debris
In Canton, Kelli Clower, 25, a reimbursement manager at Terrell State
Hospital, was changing her 2-year-old son's diaper when her home shook
violently. "I thought a tree had hit the house," she said. "We
have big pine trees, and I thought a limb from one of the pine trees had
fallen and hit the house. And then my grandmother from Arkansas called,
telling me about the space shuttle."
In Rockett, near Waxahachie, Mary Sinyard lay on the couch of her mobile
home, chatting on the phone with her daughter. She looked out the window. She
saw fiery debris streak across the sky, then appear to stop in mid-air and
fall, until it disappeared from sight.
For a minute or so, the boom shook the mobile home and rattled its windows.
In Center, about 20 miles northeast of Nacogdoches, environmental
consultant Trey Rushing, 51, of Austin had just bought some work gloves at a
discount store to fend off the chill as he headed toward a demolition job.
"I just happened to come out of the Wal-Mart and look up in the sky,
and there was this bright object going from the north to the south. It was
weird," he said. The object looked "like a brilliant, blue-white
flare," he said.
He said he thought he was witnessing an F-16 fighter pilot in the midst of
war-training exercises, dropping "chaff" to evade being hit by enemy
But the trail from the shuttle was too low, and the falling objects were
burning too brightly for it to be a jet, he said.
Reports of falling debris reached a crescendo in Nacogdoches, where Eirial
Stansell was working at his hair salon.
"We were in the office doing payroll for the day," he said,
"and all of a sudden this rumbling started. It was like an earthquake. I
looked up at the clock, and the building shook for 45 seconds."
Now there's a 4- to 5-foot piece of debris in the parking lot behind the
Kim Hedtke, a student at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches,
said the explosion woke her up.
"It sounded like thunder at first, but then it just kept getting
louder and then the walls started shaking," she said. "And I really
didn't know what was going on. My first thought was, this was an earthquake,
but, you know, this is Texas."
Nacogdoches resident Jim Garrett said he felt a prolonged tremor shortly
after 8 a.m. while reading the newspaper.
"This old, two-story farmhouse, it rattled and rolled," said Mr.
Garrett, 50, a lawyer. "My first response was, 'Dang, that jet is flying
low.' And then the intensity slackened, but it continued for what seemed like
a long time - a lot longer than you'd feel a jet passing over."
For Susan Rushing, who lives in a one-story frame house north of
Nacogdoches, the explosion "felt like the washing machine was on spin,
and off-balance, for a long time - but a lot louder."
Her daughter Katie, 11, and six other girls were sleeping over for a
slumber party. They were jolted from bed. "The house started shaking, and
there was this loud rumble," said Ms. Rushing, 50.
"The windows rattled, the glassware clinked, the cabinets slammed and
the lamps swayed," she said.
"It lasted for about a minute and a half. One of the girls and I ran
out and tried to see what was happening. It was like the longest sonic boom
I've heard. But you just didn't know what.
"And then when you later found out, it was just so sad."
Staff writers Teresa Gubbins, Linda Stewart Ball, Jennifer Emily and
Robert Garrett contributed to this report.
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Shuttle program manager Ron
Dittemore, in an emotional briefing with his top technical deputies, says
point blank that NASA does not know what happened yet.
He says the agency needs to
reconstruct as much of the vehicle as possible. He thanks the public for its
aid in finding debris, which is spread over a large area.
The shuttle managers are saying
they did not believe at the time that the damaged wing tile was a serious
enough issue to pose a threat during re-entry. He says, "We don't believe
at this point that the impact of that debris on our tile was our problem. Now
we have the events of this morning, and we are going to go back and see if
there is a connection. Is that the smoking gun?"
He says, "That's just
something we need to go look at."
But he has pointed out repeatedly
that is just one of many things that need to be looked at.
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
"The Columbia is lost,"
President Bush is telling the nation.
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
NASA says it's clear there are no
survivors. Associate Administrator Bill Readdy, a former astronaut himself:
"Sadly, I think from the video that is available, it does not appear
there were any survivors."
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Administrator O'Keefe is honoring
the crew now.
"They dedicated their lives to
pushing the scientific challenges for all of us here on Earth. They dedicated
themselves to that objective and did it with a happy heart and great
enthusiasm. The loss of this valiant crew is something we will never get
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Administrator O'Keefe says a full
technical briefing will come at 3 p.m. EST at the Johnson Space Center in
Houston. He is advising people in Texas and Louisiana who believe they have
spotted debris to stay away from it but report it to authorities.
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe
says this is a tragic day for NASA. President Bush has talked with the
astronauts' family members. He and O'Keefe have promised them an immediate and
complete investigation of what happened and the quickest possible recovery of
their loved ones' remains.
He downplayed any speculation of
"We have no indication that
the mishap was caused by anyone or anything on the ground."
An independent team is being
assembled immediately to investigate.
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Still no administrator, but it is
being said here that he might still be with family members of the crew.
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Howard McCurdy, professor of public
affairs at American University in Washington, who has written several books
about NASA management, history and space policy, says any speculation about
terrorism is far-fetched.
"It's certainly something you
think of, but it would be highly unlikely to occur."
Something mechanical with the
vehicle, or the general risks of spaceflight and re-entering the Earth's
atmosphere, are much more likely, he said.
However, he was most focused on the
immediate shock to America's space program - and most importantly the family
members of the seven crew members aboard the ship.
"It's just tragic. The most
immediate concern is the astronauts and their families."
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe is
only going to issue a statement at his 1 p.m. EST news conference here at
Kennedy Space Center, where he had come to watch the landing. He will not take
questions at this time.
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Dr. David Wormflash, who works with
the National Astrobiology Institute, worked with student researchers from
Israel and Palestine on a bacteria experiment aboard shuttle Columbia. He had
not called the Israeli student, Yuval Landau, who is back home, because today
is the Sabbath.
“I didn’t want to ruin his
Sabbath, especially with bad news.”
The experiment required post-flight
analysis, but Wormflash was not interested in that in light of today's events.
He says he'd met astronaut Ilan Ramon's wife the night before launch at a
Cocoa Beach restaurant.
"She gave us little pins of
the mission. She was so happy that night."
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
This was what entry flight director
Leroy Cain had to say yesterday about the wing tile damage.
"The engineers and analysts
took a very thorough look at the situation with the tile on the left wing and
we have no concerns whatsoever, and therefore we haven't changed anything with
respect to our trajectory design. And there's nothing that we need to do in
that regard. So, nothing different. It will be nominal, standard
"I believe that at this time,
we can't say with great detail the degree of the damage, other than all the
analyis suggests it would be very minor, in terms of the amount of tile that
might actually be missing or had been removed, would be very minor. All of the
analysis says that we have plenty of margin in those areas in that regard and
that the impact could not have been from this particular material significant
enough to take out any significant amount of tile. So I can't tell you inches
by inches or depth, but I can tell you we think it's going to be very
Cain is talking about a tile
damaged, perhaps by a piece of falling debris from the shuttle external tank.
The tiles on the left wing are there to help protect the orbiter structure
from the extreme heat when it goes through the hottest portions of the
atmosphere. That is where the orbiter was located in the sky when it lost
contact with NASA ground controllers.
Cain went on to assess the damage,
in comments Friday, downplaying its potential impact on the orbiter’s
re-entry. It’s important to note that he is talking about something that he
nor anyone else on the ground could visually inspect to any detailed degree.
It’s also important to note that NASA still has not given any indication
that the wing tile damage has anything to do with what happened today.
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
There is a black scar in the ground
being shown now on television that appears to be the smoking remnants of the
shuttle Columbia from Anderson County, Texas.
Radar images show a path of
extremely fast-moving particles over Dallas-Ft. Worth and moving, over time,
into Louisiana. The radar images indicate a debris field that stretches across
the two states and perhaps into the Gulf of Mexico. The radar shows debris
streaks all the way to the region near Shreveport.
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Brevard County has activated a 211
help line for those who feel they need crisis counselors. Dial 2-1-1 here
locally if you need to find help for any reason at all related to today's
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
NASA has issued the following
"A Space Shuttle contingency
has been declared in Mission Control, Houston, as a result of the loss of
communication with the Space Shuttle Columbia at approximately 9 a.m. EST
Saturday as it descended toward a landing at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. It
was scheduled to touchdown at 9:16 a.m. EST.
Communication and tracking of the
shuttle was lost at 9 a.m. EST at an altitude of about 203,000 feet in the
area above north central Texas. At the time communications were lost. The
shuttle was traveling approximately 12,500 miles per hour (Mach 18). No
communication and tracking information were received in Mission Control after
Search and rescue teams in the
Dallas-Fort Worth and in portions of East Texas have been alerted. Any debris
that is located in the area that may be related to the Space Shuttle
contingency should be avoided and may be hazardous as a result of toxic
propellants used aboard the shuttle. The location of any possible debris
should immediately be reported to local authorities.
Flight controllers in Mission
Control have secured all information, notes and data pertinent to today's
entry and landing by Space Shuttle Columbia and continue to methodically
proceed through contingency plans.
More information will be released
as it becomes available."
That was the end of the statement.
p.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Twenty five Kennedy Space Center
staff are on their way to Texas to assist with the search and rescue. Also,
the Defense Department has dispatched a team of people who specialize in space
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Senator Bill Nelson of Florida is
on his way to the space center and expected to be here between 1:30 p.m. and
2:30 p.m. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe is now planning to make a statement
here at KSC at 1 p.m. EST. NASA continues saying nothing from mission control
except that a "contingency" has been called. The agency has said it
lost contact with Columbia and search and rescue teams are dispatched along
the shuttle's expected route over Texas. They are "actively working"
to locate the debris from the accident.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
NASA has delayed its planned news
conference. We're hearing that President Bush will speak first and NASA
Administrator Sean O'Keefe will defer to him first, but it's unclear whether
that's the reason for the delay. We're also unclear on whether - even though a
news conference is scheduled - if we are going to get any information beyond
what we've been able to witness with our own eyes and report from the mission
control communications with the orbiter earlier today.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
An eye witness at an Air Force base
near Fort Worth says he saw five pieces of debris flying parallel to Columbia
over the far west side of Fort Worth. He says, from his vantage point, the
size of the debris field indicates that the shuttle had broken up long before
it reached that point.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Boeing spokesman Brian Nelson says
that the accident is now being investigated by NASA. Boeing is providing
assistance in securing and protecting all of the data from the re-entry, but
"NASA is the lead on this."
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
This accident is going to be harder
to investigate because all of the evidence is going to have burned up in the
atmosphere. NASA lost telemetry data and voice communication, limiting the
kind of information that might be available about what was going on in the
shuttle systems during the moments before the ship's transmissions
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
NASA has just lowered the flag in
front of the turn basin to half staff.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
NASA has just ordered its
contractor to close the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Weather officer John Madura says
that at 200,000 feet, where the orbiter was believed to be when it was
destroyed, the shuttle was in the mesosphere. That's a very predictable
portion of the atmosphere, at least in terms of weather. There was nothing
there to interfere with an orbiter's normal flight pattern except for one
thing - it's very hot there. At the height the shuttle was at that time, it
was just leaving the plasmosphere, which is the hottest portion of the
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
The destruction of Columbia raises
a slew of practical issues as well. The current station crew was scheduled to
return to Earth via a space shuttle orbiter, but it's unlikely that an orbiter
will be flying any time for the remainder of this year if the post-Challenger
practices are any indication. That crew's options include return via an
emergency pod built by the Russians. That Soyuz spacecraft is docked at the
station at all times for emergency escape. The question is whether they would
use that escape pod now and come home in the very near future.
As things stand now, with the
United States' remaining three orbiters certainly grounded for the forseeable
future, Soyuz is the only craft available to ferry astronauts back and forth
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
NASA's contingency board is meeting
at this moment to discuss what happened. Johnson Space Center will release a
statement shortly, we are being told. And a press conference should follow.
Administrator Sean O'Keefe was on site today for the landing but is not clear
yet whether the press will get access to him to discuss the incident.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
The wires are reporting that
President Bush is being briefed and that top Pentagon and Homeland Security
officials are talking about possible terrorist attacks and other issues -
although it is absolutely critical to note there is no indication that is what
happened today despite the presence on board of Israel's first astronaut.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
The protective tiles used to shield
the orbiter from the heat of re-entry were new to the space shuttle vehicle
(of which Columbia was the first to fly). Thousands of the pieces are used to
protect the outside of the orbiter, made from a variety of high-tech
materials. Some look and feel like little ceramic blocks. Other protective
tiles are more of a fabric material.
NASA says there are approximately
24,300 tiles and 2,300 flexible insulation blankets on the outside of each
NASA says the orbiter's nose cone,
including the chin panel, and the leading edge of its wings are the hottest
areas during re-entry. When maximum heating occurs about 20 minutes before
touchdown, temperatures on these surfaces reach as high as 3,000 degrees F.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
It's now been 1 hour since NASA
last received data or voice communications from the shuttle.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Witnesses in Texas are saying they
heard an incredible roar and saw the white trail of Columbia as it was lost.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
This new crisis comes just as
Administrator Sean O'Keefe was getting kudos for apparently getting the
agency's financial troubles back in order.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
The officials said yesterday that
damage to the protective tiles on Columbia's left wing shouldn't affect the
procedure for landing, Entry flight director Leroy Cain said yesterday when
asked about the situation. "All of the analysis says we have plenty of
margin in that regard," he said Friday. No information coming now about
whether that's the issue here.
The damage was likely caused by
foam that came off the shuttle's external tank during ascent, a Johnson Space
Center spokesman said.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
There was a minor problem when a
piece of insulating foam from the external fuel tank fell from the shuttle
during launch on January 16th, but NASA officials said at that time that they
thought there was only minor damage to left wing tiles - the covering that
protects the orbiter from extreme heat during the descent through the
atmosphere at incredible speeds.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
That is NASA's official
confirmation that the shuttle and its crew are lost.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
TV stations are reporting Columbia
exploded over Texas with debris falling over Texas. Spokespeople here are not
reporting any information. Video on television shows pieces of the orbiter are
falling from the sky. There is no indication of casualties. NASA is now saying
that debris is the shuttle.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Communications were lost at 8 a.m.
central time this morning on the way to a landing here at Kennedy Space
Center. Apparently contrails were seen somewhere near Dallas. Any debris
located near Dallas-Fort Worth area is potentially toxic or dangerous and
people are being warned to stay away from anything they find in that area.
Details are very sketchy here.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
They've locked down Kennedy Space
Center with security. No one is getting in or out of the base for the time
being. NASA is going to issue a statement briefly but it's destined to be
brief and without much detail because it is clear the mission controllers do
not know precisely what happened. The descent into the atmosphere was going
fine from all indications and then the normal running commentary from mission
control in Houston became quiet as they had no information transmitted down
from the orbiter. There was no body language or other indication from
controllers that something was amiss. There still is not as they
professionally continue efforts to gather every bit of data they can. The tone
out here at KSC is absolute devastation as crews radio messages to one another
about security, astronaut family support and other contingency plans.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
There are long periods of silence
between the updates from NASA. We're getting no information. Reporters are
being hauled away from the landing facility. Assistance has been dispatched to
the VIP area at the landing site to help with astronauts families. Controllers
are being told to secure all information and data from the orbiter for the
pending investigation of what went wrong today at about 200,000 feet above
north central Texas.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
A search and rescue team is being
dispatched to Texas, where it is believed the orbiter broke up during descent.
Very, very little is being said here about what has happened in part because
officials appear not to know yet.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Mission control is silent. There
was never a sign of the orbiter here. There was brief discussion of an
instrumentation problem aboard the orbiter just before communications was lost
but no explanation. Then, Merritt Island tracking station did not pick up the
orbiter's signal. It was believed last contacted over Texas.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
NASA has lost communication with
the orbiter and has no tracking data.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Ten minutes from wheels down.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Columbia is near the Arizona-New
Mexico border moving at just over 14,000 miles per hour. Husband has taken the
orbiter into the second of four banks, slowing the orbiter down.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Twenty minutes to touchdown and no
announcement yet of a runway change. The orbiter is flying over Nevada near
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
VIP guests, including crew members'
loved ones, have arrived at the Shuttle Landing Facility. Several members of
Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon's family are among them. The Israeli delegation,
here for the mission of that country's first spacefarer, has been well guarded
in all of their travels here on the Space Coast, both for launch and today's
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Columbia's altitude is about 47
miles, moving at 16,400 miles per hour. Commander Husband has the shuttle in
the first of a series of hard banks, which help to slow the orbiter for
landing. Columbia is approaching the coast of California right now.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
A decision to switch to Runway 15
is being discussed now. The shuttle is 3,450 miles from touchdown here at KSC.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Exactly 30 minutes from landing and
still no decision on which runway the shuttle will use. Discussions are
ongoing. The orbiter is dropping into the atmosphere, moving at 17,000 miles
per hour and 68 miles above Earth.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
The convoy has arrived at the
landing facility to support the landing of Columbia. The orbiter will remain
on the runway longer than normal today as crews unload the many science
experiments on board.
The astronauts also are in for
longer-than-normal physicals because they too were test subjects for many
experiments on this flight. They will see family members who are in town for
the landing, but the astronauts themselves will not be able to fly home to
Houston until Sunday.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Astronaut Kent Rominger and
Educator-Astronaut Barbara Morgan are doing the weather reconnaissance here at
Kennedy Space Center this morning. They are flying in the shuttle training
aircraft, making approaches to the runways to test the landing conditions and
reporting back to Houston controllers. Morgan, by the way, is slated to fly on
a shuttle mission scheduled to launch later this year.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Columbia will cross the Florida
panhandle, fly briefly over the Gulf of Mexico on a path that will take it
over Orlando heading eastward toward the landing facility. This will be the
62nd landing of a shuttle at Kennedy. Winds are coming from the west at 5
knots, well within limits for a nominal landing.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
It's breezy with a few clouds at
the Shuttle Landing Facility. The convoy of landing support vehicles is on its
way but yet to arrive. Security helicopters are now making passes over the
runways and the roads near the SLF.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Discussions are ongoing in Houston
and here in Florida about which runway the shuttle will land on. Columbia is
targeted for Runway 33 now, but there is discussion about a possible switch.
Crews on the ground here on making preparations just in case that change is
made. They'll be prepared for whatever decision is made by controllers in
Houston and shuttle Commander Rick Husband.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Columbia will cross the west coast
above San Francisco Bay area in less than a half an hour, providing what NASA
predicts will be a great view for people there this morning. It will remain
visible to people in Las Vegas just before 9 a.m. EST as it continues crossing
the southwestern United States, heading toward Florida.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Columbia is beginning to move
itself into the proper position for its first encounter with the atmosphere.
The crew aboard is dumping the remaining fuel from its maneuvering system
before it enters the atmosphere.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
The burn is complete and Columbia
is beginning its descent to Earth. The orbiter is on course for a touchdown at
Kennedy Space Center at 9:16 a.m. EST. Mission control in Houston has deemed
the burn was perfectly executed. The shuttle's initial encounter with the
atmosphere will occur in about 25 minutes above the Pacific Ocean, north of
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Commander Rick Husband has begun
the two and a half minute burn of the shuttle's orbiter maneuvering systems to
drop Columbia out of orbit. The shuttle was about 175 miles above Earth, over
the Indian Ocean, when the burn began.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
"Right now we are happy with
the weather at KSC, and you are go for the burn," astronaut and ground
communicator Charlie Hobaugh just told shuttle Commander Rick Husband. A
decision as to which runway will be used is still pending.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Chief astronaut Kent Rominger has
been reporting mixed results from his flights in the shuttle training aircraft
at both runways. Visibility is apparently better at runway 33. A final
decision is pending on the deorbit burn, which would take place 10 minutes
from now for the shuttle's first landing opportunity at Kennedy Space Center
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Forecasters are still keeping an
eye on the fog at Kennedy Space Center, but the Columbia crew has been given a
go-ahead for all deorbit burn preparations except the burn itself.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
The astronauts are taking their
seats, preparing for a deorbit burn about 45 minutes from now. Weather is
still under consideration. Upper-level winds could determine how the shuttle
approaches Kennedy Space Center and whether it will land at runway 15 or 33.
Fog is also a concern, but it is beginning to burn off.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Mission controllers have told the
crew to prepare for the first deorbit burn, although there are a couple of
weather issues: visibility - though the rising sun may help burn off the fog -
and strong and shifting upper-level winds. There's also a discussion of which
runway to use.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
The shuttle is now a little more
than an hour away from the planned deorbit burn for its first landing
opportunity. Forecasters will evaluate whether fog, clouds and upper-level
winds are a concern before giving the go-ahead.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
The orbiter's computers are
configured with the "ops 3" software package for landing.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
The payload bay doors are now
closed and latched. The next step for Columbia is switching to the software
package that will enable it to land.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Columbia's astronauts have
reconfigured the shuttle's cooling system and are closing the orbiter's
payload bay doors. They shut the hatch to the Spacehab double research module
in the payload bay around 2 a.m. EST, officially ending their scientific
They have just received a weather
briefing summarizing the prospects for landing. The second opportunity looks
better because of lingering fog and clouds.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
Mission controllers in Houston have
given the astronauts aboard Columbia the go-ahead to close the payload bay
doors in preparation for landing. The doors are kept open in orbit to assist
in regulating the orbiter's temperature.
a.m. EST, Feb. 1, 2003
It's landing day! After a marathon
16-day mission, the astronauts aboard Columbia are making preparations for a
scheduled 9:15 a.m. landing.
Fog is creeping through Kennedy
Space Center this morning, and some of it has lifted into low clouds. John
Madura, manager of KSC's weather office, said though there are patches of fog
and stratus lingering, "we're confident it's going to burn off."
The question is, will enough of it
have burned off by the time the deorbit burn decision must be made? The burn
is scheduled to take place at 8:15 a.m. EST.
If the fog and clouds at that time
make the forecasters at Houston's Spaceflight Meteorology Group uncomfortable,
they may decide to wave off the first attempt. There's another opportunity for
landing at 10:50 a.m.
"The weather will cooperate on
the second opportunity," Madura said. Winds are not a concern and may, in
fact, help blow off some of the fog. "The winds that we have will be
primarily down the runway."
p.m. EST, Jan. 31, 2003
Apparent minor tile damage on
Columbia's left wing shouldn't affect the procedure for landing, entry flight
director Leroy Cain said at a midday briefing. "All of the analysis says
we have plenty of margin in that regard," he said.
The damage was likely caused by
foam that came off the shuttle's external tank during ascent, a Johnson Space
Center spokesman said.
Cain echoed Spaceflight Meteorology
Group's favorable forecast, saying winds would be blowing right down the
The crew is wrapping up scientific
activities and focusing on packing for the trip home. "It's far exceeded
folks' expectations from a science standpoint," Cain said.
There will be a weather briefing
around 4 a.m. EST Saturday. The payload bay doors will then be closed in
preparation for the shuttle's deorbit burn, scheduled for 8:15 a.m. EST.
People in California, Arizona, New
Mexico, Texas and the Gulf Coast can get a view of the orbiter as it swoops
over the southern United States on the way to a 9:15 a.m. landing at Kennedy
a.m. EST, Jan. 31, 2003
Dry air over Florida and winds
coming from the right direction will combine to make good conditions for
Columbia's landing Saturday morning.
The northerly breezes pose no
threat of crosswinds, Kennedy Space Center spokesman George Diller said.
Forecasters no longer expect fog,
and scattered clouds are in the forecast. Visibility should be 7 miles.
Runway 33 is planned for both of
the KSC landing opportunities Saturday, now expected at 9:15.50 a.m. and
Sunday and Monday also look good at
KSC and at alternate landing site Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Edwards will not be used on Saturday.
The shuttle crew has been doing
communications checks with tracking stations this morning, including the one
on Merritt Island, in preparation for landing. The astronauts test-fired
steering jets and checked other systems as well.
They are wrapping up their
scientific activities and packing up as they get ready to close out their
p.m. EST, Jan. 29, 2003
The Spaceflight Meteorology Group
in Houston says the weather for landing at Kennedy Space Center on Saturday
morning looks promising. Edwards Air Force Base in California will not be used
as an alternative landing site Saturday, a KSC spokesman said.
Broken clouds are expected at
25,000 feet, with scattered clouds at 3,500 feet. There will be light
west-northwest winds, with 7-mile visibility - and a chance of 5-mile
visibility in ground fog.
The shuttle can land in fog and has
before, affording photographers unique photo opportunities as the orbiter's
wings form patterns as they cut through the fog.
Some scientists are eagerly
awaiting the return of their experiments and are traveling to Kennedy Space
Center from around the country to pick them up when Columbia returns.
p.m. EST, Jan. 28, 2003
Space shuttle Columbia's first
landing attempt is scheduled for Saturday morning, Feb. 1, at 9:15 a.m. EST at
Kennedy Space Center. If the orbiter is waved off, its second try will be at
10:49 a.m. EST.
The National Weather Service office
in Melbourne, Fla., is calling for partly cloudy skies on Saturday. Enough
clouds, and the shuttle will not land.
If weather proves bad for Saturday,
the shuttle can try again at 7:38 a.m. or 9:12 a.m. Sunday at Kennedy Space
Center. It also has two landing opportunities at Edwards Air Force Base in
California after the Florida attempts.
It can try again Monday at KSC at
7:34 a.m. or 9:09 a.m., or it could go for a landing at Edwards at 10:35 a.m.
EST. Mission managers said Monday that the orbiter has enough resources to
extend the mission by four days.
The shuttle has been involved in
scientific research during a 16-day mission. It orbited the Earth during that
time but did not visit the International Space Station. See more coverage on
1, 2:17 PM
hears loud noises Associated
-- Residents of north Texas heard "a big bang" Saturday about the
time the space shuttle Columbia disappeared on its way to a landing at Cape
"It was like a car hitting the
house or an explosion. It shook that much," said John Ferolito, 60, of
Carrolton, north of Dallas.
NASA declared an emergency after
losing communication with Columbia as the ship soared across Texas at an
altitude of about 200,000 feet, while traveling at six times the speed of sound.
The space agency said search and rescue teams in the Dallas-Fort Worth area were
Gary Hunziker in Plano said he saw
the shuttle flying overhead. "I could see two bright objects flying off
each side of it," he told The Associated Press. "I just assumed they
were chase jets."
"I was getting read to go out
and I heard a big bang and the windows shook in the house," Ferolito told
The AP. "I was getting ready to go out and I heard a big bang and the
windows shook in the house. I thought it was a sonic boom."
Louisiana State Police in Bossier
City, 182 miles east of Dallas, got so many calls that one trooper had to be
assigned just to answer the phone.
"One said he saw a plane
breaking up over Shreveport. One said he saw a big ball of fire. One guy said
his house had a blast that shook his house," state police Sgt. Steve
Robinson said. That call was from DeSoto Parish, south of the parish where
Bossier City is located.
in the 1980s, a Russian satellite re-entered the atmosphere," Robinson
said. "We got lots of calls about that. Turned out it went down a thousand
miles from here."
Shuttle Lost Over Texas
Seven Astronauts Believed to Be Dead
February 1, 2003; 11:22 AM
shuttle Columbia apparently broke apart in flames as it streaked over Texas
toward its scheduled landing Saturday morning. All seven astronauts, six
Americans and an Israeli are believed to be dead.
didn't immediately declare the crew dead; however, the U.S. flag next to its
countdown clock was lowered to half-staff.
in Washington said that there was no immediate indication of terrorism, and that
President Bush was informed and awaiting more information from NASA.
announced that search and rescue teams were being mobilized in Dallas and Fort
was at an altitude of 200,700 feet over north-central Texas at a 9 a.m.,
traveling at 12,500 mph when mission control lost contact and tracking data.
warned that any debris found in the area should be avoided and could be
hazardous. There were reports of debris seen falling.
of north Texas heard "a big bang" Saturday about the time the space
shuttle Columbia disappeared on its way to a landing at Cape Canaveral.
was like a car hitting the house or an explosion. It shook that much," said
John Ferolito, 60, of Carrolton, north of Dallas.
Hunziker in Plano said he saw the shuttle flying overhead. "I could see two
bright objects flying off each side of it," he told The Associated Press.
"I just assumed they were chase jets."
was getting read to go out and I heard a big bang and the windows shook in the
house," Ferolito told The Associated Press. "I was getting ready to go
out and I heard a big bang and the windows shook in the house. I thought it was
a sonic boom."
Multer of Palestine, Texas, told CNN he
saw what looked like a high-flying jet and heard a noise.
would be very similar to a tornado, it was very loud and intense," Multer
said. "It was loud enough and it was low enough that it shook the
42 years of human space flight, NASA has never lost a space crew during landing
or the ride back to orbit. In 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly
had been tight for the 16-day scientific research mission that included the
first Israeli astronaut.
astronauts had conducted more than 80 experiments on behalf of NASA and the
European, Japanese, German and Canadian space agencies, as well as numerous
student and commercial investigations. The shuttle did not visit the
International Space Station on this trip.
Ramon, a colonel in Israel's air force and former fighter pilot, became the
first man from his country to fly in space, and his presence resulted in an
increase in security, not only for Columbia's Jan. 16 launch, but also for its
launch day, a piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank came off during
liftoff and was believed to have struck the left wing of the shuttle.
Cain, the lead flight director in Mission Control, had assured reporters Friday
that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing was considered minor
and posed no safety hazard.
is NASA's oldest shuttle and first flew in 1981.
CAPE CANAVERAL -- NASA will center its investigation on the left wing of
the ill-fated shuttle Columbia, officials said Saturday.
A NASA video obtained by Florida Today revealed debris striking the left
wing of Columbia during its ascent to space. Failures were recorded just prior
to the last contact with the crew Saturday along the same left wing. Ron
Dittemore, shuttle program manager, said in hindsight the incident will
require close study.
Shuttle Columbia exploded and broke apart over central Texas on Saturday
morning on its way to Kennedy Space Center, killing all seven astronauts.
The orbiter's ride home from a 16-day science mission was going perfectly
until 8:53 a.m., when sensor readings began to indicate a series of unusual
failures, all associated with the left wing and left tires.
Mission controllers lost contact with the shuttle about 9 a.m., 16 minutes
before the planned landing. About the same time, witnesses saw trails of
debris flying through the skies high above Dallas-Fort Worth in a path
parallel to the orbiter.
Lost in the pursuit of science were commander Rick Husband, 45; pilot William
McCool, 41; Michael Anderson, 43; David Brown, 46; Kalpana Chawla, 41; Laurel
Clark, 41; and the first Israeli astronaut, former fighter pilot Ilan Ramon,
48. All except Brown were married, and among those married, all but Chawla had
"We are bound together by the risk of disaster all the time,"
shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said, citing the passion of those
working in the space program. "There is an emotional attachment to human
spaceflight. It piques our interest, captures our imagination."
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe promised the astronauts' families the quick
recovery of their loved ones and a thorough, independent investigation of what
went wrong. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Tallahassee, vowed a separate
Congressional probe. President Bush pledged whatever federal resources were
needed for the search and recovery and the investigation.
The cause of the accident was not immediately known, but speculation at NASA
focused immediately on launch-day damage to insulating tiles on Columbia's
left wing. Thousands of the tiles keep the shuttle from burning up as the ship
drops from space, shedding extreme heat as it hurtles through Earth's
atmosphere on its way to landing.
A videotaped recording of the launch, obtained by Florida Today, shows a
white piece of debris falling during launch and striking the underside of the
shuttle's wing. On Friday, NASA officials said debris from the shuttle's
external tank had fallen during launch and hit the wing, damaging the tiles
that protect it from the heat of re-entry.
Shuttle program directors said they weren't convinced the wing damage
caused the disaster. But Dittemore said "We can't discount there might be
As the strange sensor readings poured in during reentry, "we knew that
something was not quite right," he said.'We did not copy'At 8:59 a.m.,
the crew was having a routine exchange with mission controllers in Houston
when communications were lost.
"We did not copy your last," the ground controller said.
"Roger," Commander Rick Husband said from Columbia. He never
completed his sentence.
A few seconds of silence followed before a NASA commentator noted without
explanation, "Columbia is out of communication with mission
A few moments later at Kennedy Space Center, astronauts' families and
dignitaries began to wonder why they were not seeing the glint of the shuttle
on the horizon or hearing the trademark sonic booms. NASA controllers said
they were not picking up voice or telemetry data from the shuttle at a
tracking station on Merritt Island.
Eyewitnesses in Texas reported seeing the shuttle break apart as it
streaked across the sky.
Debris that government officials later confirmed to be parts of the shuttle
was found across Texas and Louisiana, and radar imagery indicated that pieces
of the orbiter could have been strewn as far as the Gulf of Mexico. Also there
were remains that a hospital employee identified as a charred torso, thighbone
and skull on a rural road near other unspecified debris in Hemphill, east of
O'Keefe said President Bush spoke to the families of the astronauts, as did
"We trust the prayers of the nation will be with them and with their
families. A more courageous group of people you could not have hoped to
know," O'Keefe said.
The shuttle, at the time it was lost, was traveling at 207,135 feet above
That altitude roughly matches that of the mesosphere, where NASA weather
officer John Madura said there should have been no weather or other
unpredictable factors affecting the orbiter's flight path. But at the moment
of failure, the shuttle was passing through the hottest portions of its flight
through the atmosphere.
"We cannot yet say what caused the loss of Columbia," Dittemore
said, nearly breaking down as he read off the names of the lost crew members.
Columbia's science mission had been delayed several times because of
technical and other concerns. Like the other shuttles, it had welding repairs
on its fuel-pipe liners last summer. The oldest of the shuttles, and the first
to fly to space, it completed a $145 million overhaul in 2001.
In Brevard, a crowd of VIPs, including astronauts, officials, Israeli
dignitaries and NASA brass, were gathered to watch the landing. People were
watching the sky, looking for the usual glint of light that is the first sign
of the orbiter nearing the Florida air strip and listening for its trademark
When that did not happen before the landing countdown clock hit zero,
people became confused. People rushed to dial cell phones and, within a few
minutes, VIPs and journalists were loaded onto buses and removed from the
Mission controllers by that time were declaring a "shuttle
contingency" and working to make sure they could preserve whatever
information and data they had from the moments leading up to the loss of
communication. The shuttle's signals should have been picked up by a tracking
station on Merritt Island just before arriving at KSC. That signal never came.
Once it was clear Columbia was lost, workers with the support convoy at the
shuttle landing strip gathered in a building for a moment and said a prayer.
The families of the astronauts were immediately dispatched to the astronaut
crew quarters, as were a contingent of support staff -- dozens of which are on
hand for launches and landings to run errands for and otherwise take care of
"It's terrible," said one NASA employee, who asked not to be
identified because the agency ordered its workers not to talk to the press.
"It's something no one expected. . . . There's just nothing to say."
In the weeks leading up to the launch, more people were concerned about
security for this shuttle, in part because of Ramon's presence. The security
surrounding the launch was an escalation of intense measures put in place
since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Crew knew risksRamon reassured his
family that flying on the shuttle was safe.
"I tell them maybe now, more than ever, after the last delay, that
NASA is taking care, very, very seriously, of all the safety issues,"
Ramon said. "And I feel like I'm going to fly as safely as I could ever
be in the shuttle."
Husband was on his second flight.
"Certainly my wife is more aware of the risks than my kids are, so we
try not to play up those kinds of things more than necessary," the father
of two said. "And the main thing we try to emphasize is the confidence
that I have in all of the people who work so hard to make sure that we fly our
Many of the crew said the importance of spaceflight outweighed the risks.
The disaster brings to 17 the number of people NASA has lost in launch
accidents or mission training, but Ramon became the first foreign national
killed aboard a U.S. shuttle. The Challenger disaster claimed seven astronauts
on Jan. 28, 1986, and the launch pad fire of Apollo 1 killed three Americans
on Jan. 27, 1967. Their names will go on a memorial wall at Kennedy Space
Center Visitors Complex.
Most astronauts talk with their families and deal with the potential for
danger when they become astronauts, and sometimes before.
"Being a military pilot, they're sort of used to me being gone and
used to me having a job that has a fair amount of risk associated with
it," Anderson said before the launch. ". . .When it comes to space
flight, I really don't tell them anything. I think they know I'm doing
something I love to do. They understand there's risk involved."
Yet there is no denying that risk is a worry for the aging space shuttle
fleet, which first launched with Columbia in 1981 and which NASA has been
preparing to fly through 2020. The cause of the accident must be determined,
and the costs and risks must be weighed again. The three remaining shuttles
will be grounded until the cause of the accident can be determined, NASA
There is no escape system on the space shuttles, other than the parachutes
astronauts wear in case the orbiter can't reach a landing strip. That's not
relevant when the orbiter is at the altitude it was when it broke up over
The shuttle fleet was built for 100 flights each. The remaining orbiters,
Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, have flown about a quarter of their
designed life. NASA could not immediately say what its intentions were for the
fleet, but all of its officials vowed repeatedly to "fix" whatever
the human dimensions of tragedy that gripped Kennedy Space Center, Brevard
County and the world Saturday morning were huge. There was a sense of
disbelief and horror, colored by the confusion prompted by an orbiter that
simply did not appear over the horizon as it had so many times before as a
matter of routine.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - Astronauts videotaping thunderstorms from the
space shuttle Columbia captured what scientists said on Thursday was a
never-before-seen red glowing arc of light paralleling the curve of the Earth.
"Two nights ago over Africa was an extraordinary image. We saw a huge
horizontal line of air glow which has been brightened by lightning below it
which extended to several hundred miles horizontally and we feel it may be
something new," said Dr. Yoav Yair.
Yair, project coordinator for Israeli experiments on board the Columbia in
its current mission, said analysis would attempt over the next few weeks to
confirm scientists' initial impression that the glow is neither a sprite nor
an elf, two other electrical phenomena associated with thunderstorms.
"It is raw data hot from the oven," Yair said. "It's a grainy and noisy
image but for scientists it's a treasure trove. That's what we like."
Scientists were excited by the news that astronauts on Sunday captured the
first-ever pictures of elves taken from space with a calibrated camera. The
shuttle and its seven-member crew, which includes Israel's first astronaut,
Ilan Ramon, are on a 16-day science mission that began on Jan. 16.
The study of sprites, elves and other luminosities associated with
thunderstorms is part of what Yair described as a new discipline in the field
of upper atmospheric physics. Sprites, which are red flashes shooting up from
thunderstorms, were discovered only as recently as 1989, followed by elves,
which are spreading red doughnut shapes, in 1994.
The latest luminosity, Yair said, was a narrow limb-like glow, hundreds of
miles in length, red in color and probably made of nitrogen. Yair said the
band was especially bright.
"It seems that the atmosphere still holds surprises for us," Yair said.
Yair said scientists studying these electrical discharges were looking to
further basic science rather than develop specific products.
"But if you understand the global electrical circuit, and if you want to
fly certain high flying aircraft or even satellites or if you want to move
things through this layer of atmosphere then you have to know really well
what's going on up there in terms of electricity," Yair said.
Monday, January 20, 2003 Posted: 1:25 PM EST
working around-the-clock on a 16-day science mission in orbit, members of
the space shuttle Columbia crew took a break this weekend to talk to CNN
Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien in Atlanta. Following are highlights from
the long-distance chat.
O'BRIEN: We're going to take just a few moments to say hello to the
crew of the space shuttle Columbia, now traveling above the Pacific at 17,300
miles per hour, 150 miles above us. Let's give you an idea of who's who. This
is Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli ever to fly in space. Kalpana Chawla, mission
specialist, on her second mission. Rick Husband, the commander, second
mission. Laurel Clark, another space rookie.
Commander Husband, let's talk first of all about how everything's going.
You've got a menagerie of animals up there. Too many scientific experiments to
enumerate here, but generally speaking, how's it going?
HUSBAND: Things are going really great, Miles. We're having a great
time up here. We had a great ride to orbit, and all the activation of the
experiments went extremely well. And we've really got our space legs up and up
O'BRIEN: Send it over to Colonel Ramon, please. Colonel Ramon, I'm
curious what it was like when you had that opportunity on one of those early
passes to look down at your home country in the Middle East. What were your
thoughts at that time?
RAMON: To tell you the truth, it was pretty fast. It was actually
today [Saturday] and it went too fast. It was partly or mostly cloudy. So I
couldn't see much of Israel, just the north of Israel, and, of course, I was
O'BRIEN: What are your thoughts now that you're in space about what
it represents to your nation?
RAMON: It's an opening for great science from our nation, and
hopefully for our neighbors in the Middle East.
O'BRIEN: Was the launch what you expected?
RAMON: The launch was really exciting, yes. A lot of noise, shaking,
but after about a minute or so, and it went really smoothly.
O'BRIEN: Security was very tight. A lot of concern before you ever
fired off those solid rocket boosters. Did you ever -- how aware of that were
you, how much of an added concern was that for you?
RAMON: Well, since NASA security [was] unbelievable and helpful, I
didn't have any doubt that everything would go really good, and so it did. And
I was aware of it. I got there with my family, and I knew exactly what was
going on there.
O'BRIEN: It's interesting, when you consider the risks astronauts
take, to be concerned about that on top of everything else.
Send it over to mission specialist Chawla. I'm just curious if you could
share for us a moment of what it's like being in that space hub? It's a
scientific juggling act, isn't it?
CHAWLA: It really is. [I'm working on] four experiments
simultaneously. But it's a lot of fun and we are enjoying it. The module is
quite big, roomy, and we were able to put it in very good configuration for
our work on the very first day, so it's been working out really well.
O'BRIEN: And let's send it over to Laurel Clark. Laurel, are these
experiments working? You have 80 some experiments. They couldn't all be
working as planned.
CLARK: Things are going very smoothly. As expected, there are some
minor glitches, and the eight minutes that it took us to get to orbit, we
trained months and months for, and didn't have to use any of that preparation,
other than being aware and ready.
As for our science experiments, on the other hand, it's very fortunate that
we've had such thorough training, we've had an excellent team on the ground.
With the minor glitches that have occurred, we've been able to take care of
them. And the teams on the ground are getting tons of incredible data.
O'BRIEN: Let's close with Colonel Ramon. I have an e-mail question
for you, colonel. This comes from Great Britain. "Don't you think it would
have been a powerful evocation and image of humanity if you had flown with a
Palestinian or an Arab crew member?" And he wishes good fortune to you. Have
you thought much about that?
RAMON: Well, as you probably know, an Arab man already flew in the
'80s. So I am not the first one from there. And I feel like I represent, first
of all, of course, the state of Israel and the Jews, but I represent also all
our neighbors, and I hope it will contribute to the whole world, and
especially to our Middle East neighbors.
O'BRIEN: All right. We're going to have to leave it at that. The
crew, or at least a portion, the awakened crew of the Columbia. There are some
of them asleep right now. Three of them in bunks in the mid-deck. Thanks very
much for taking a little bit of time while you are in orbit to visit us from
the flight deck of the space shuttle Columbia. We wish you well on this space