- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

Space Shuttle Columbia investigators said yesterday that they discovered new flaws with insulation applied to external fuel tanks used by NASA.
They also are planning tests to figure out how much damage insulation could have caused when it slammed into the shuttle's left wing.
Navy Rear Adm. Stephen A. Turcotte, a member of the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said air pockets were discovered in a layer of insulation on a fuel tank inspected last week at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
Adm. Turcotte, commander of the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, said the board doesn't know why air pockets formed, but he indicated the "voids" could cause insulation to peel from the fuel tank.
"That could cause a breakage of some sort," he said.
Adm. Turcotte said investigators will examine two more fuel tanks to determine the extent of the problem. The flawed insulation was on the fuel tank's bipod, a metal piece that connects the tank to the shuttle.
Investigators also released a new image yesterday showing where debris hit Columbia's left wing. They said debris hit carbon panels on the wing's leading edge, underlying support strips and some tiles on its bottom. They will conduct foam-impact tests in 10 days to measure damage to those areas.
Scott Hubbard, a member of the investigation board, said researchers will fire 1-pound and 2-pound chunks of foam insulation from a nitrogen-pressurized gas gun at wing tiles, carrier panels, the wing's leading edge and main landing gear door. Material will come from Space Shuttles Enterprise and Discovery, he said.
The tests could call into question conclusions from software analysis that Boeing Co. did for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration before Columbia disintegrated during its Feb. 1 descent. NASA used that analysis to conclude that the debris couldn't have caused enough damage to pose a safety risk.
"We're going to collect real data," Mr. Hubbard said.
The tests will help investigators try their leading theory that debris hit Columbia's left wing, causing a breach that allowed superheated gases to penetrate the orbiter.
Mr. Hubbard also said investigators could find out as soon as today whether magnetic tape from Columbia's flight data recorder has engineering data from sensors and whether that information can be retrieved.
The flight data recorder is at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and engineers are making copies of it. The work to recover data from 721 sensors that took measurements during liftoff and descent will begin Monday at the Johnson Space Center.
"The million-dollar question, of course, is what's on it," Mr. Hubbard said.
He said it could be "a gold mine of information."
The data will include information from 447 sensors that recorded load and stress measurements, 182 that recorded pressure measurements and 53 that have temperature measurements.
Retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman, chairman of the investigation board, said the committee must determine whether corrosion played a role in the disaster. Columbia spent 2 years on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center during the past two decades, he said, and bolts used to fasten wing panels could have corroded.
In Congress yesterday, the House Science Committee unanimously approved a bill authorizing construction of a memorial to the Columbia crew at Arlington National Cemetery.

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