- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 (UPI) — While NASA has studied the effects of a possible high-speed collision of its shuttles and small objects, little was known about what damage would occur if the debris was moving much more slowly, The New York Times reported Monday.

After the shuttle Columbia was hit by debris from its external tanks shortly after liftoff Jan. 16, NASA was told the damage was not critical. Columbia broke apart during re-entry Feb. 1, killing the seven astronauts aboard.

An engineer spoke to the Times only on a promise of anonymity because NASA has not allowed the engineers to talk to the media without authorization. The engineer told the newspaper: "People came to the conclusion that whatever damage happened was tolerable but it's not clear that was based on any solid data. The testing data just wasn't there."

There was data, however, of tests involving high-speed particles. And those indicated that the leading edge of the wings of a space shuttle, if hit by something traveling at very high speeds, posed the one of the greatest chances of a disaster, NASA studies, cited by the Times, indicate.

The newspaper, in its Monday editions, said NASA research centers in 1999 examined tiny holes and cracks in the material making up the outside of the nose and the edges of the wings on shuttles. They determined that if a small object — such as orbital debris or a small meteorite — hit the wing at more than 21,000 feet per second there was a risk of "critical failure."

While no cause has been pinpointed, officials are looking at the left wing of Columbia as a possible starting place for the disintegration of the craft.

A piece of foam insulation from the shuttle's external tank came loose and hit the shuttle about 80 seconds after the craft left the ground. The debris hit the left wing, but it was not known if it caused what damage, if any, it caused. However, an Air Force telescope image of the shuttle about a minute before it broke apart showed a jagged area on the wing near where the debris had struck.

Officials have been looking at the left wing as a key to the destruction of Columbia because sensors in that section were the first to fail. The Times said the sensors were knocked out one by one, suggesting that heat spread through the area and burned wiring.

NASA was also checking a radar image taken Jan. 17 by the Air Force showing an object appeared to be moving away from the spacecraft.

NASA spokesman David Drachlis told the Times: "We're not sure whether it came off the spacecraft or was space debris. And it's too early to determine whether Columbia was stuck by space debris."

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