- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 13, 2003

HOUSTON, Feb. 13 (UPI) — A safety engineer, asked to consider problems resulting from debris hitting the shuttle Columbia, warned that damage in the craft's wheel well could lead to "catastrophic" outcomes.

Columbia broke apart during re-entry minutes short of its scheduled landing Feb. 1 in Florida. The craft's disintegration resulted in the deaths of the seven astronauts on board.

While NASA officials say no reason for the catastrophe has been found — or ruled out — much attention has been paid to an incident about 80 seconds after Columbia left the ground Jan. 16, in which a piece of debris hit the shuttle's left wing.

NASA decided the debris did little damage but officials still asked for potential outcomes.

Robert Daugherty, an engineer at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., said he was "erring on the side of absolute worst-case scenarios" in his Jan. 30 e-mail message to David Lechner, a contractor on the team responsible for Columbia's mechanical and crew systems.

Daugherty outlined several possibilities involving the shuttle's wheels, including the gear failing to deploy and an explosion in the wheel well.

Describing the latter scenario, Daugherty wrote, "The resulting loads on the gear door (a quarter million lbs) would almost certainly blow the door off the hinges or at least send it out into the slip stream…catastrophic."

The engineer wrote that the wheel itself could "fail" and create "much carnage in the wheel well, something could get screwed up enough to prevent deployment and then you are in a world of hurt."

James Heflin, NASA mission operations chief flight director told The New York Times that Daugherty was "what-iffing, which is some we do a lot of." Other NASA engineers had already decided that the Jan. 16 collision with the debris had not caused serious damage.

Heflin, the Times reported, said, "The conclusion was that we didn't have a safety-of-flight issue."

Daugherty also offered possibilities should the landing gear not deploy, saying consideration should be given to shuttle flight capabilities with one gear down and one up, landing with neither gear deployed and "If a belly landing is unacceptable, ditching/bailout might be next on the list. Not a good day."

It was in the final minutes before scheduled landing that NASA noticed sensors in the left wheel well giving unusual readings or not working at all. Daugherty said he was offering his series of potential outcomes because "I certainly believe that to not be ready for a gut-wrenching decision after seeing instrumentation in the wheel well not be there after entry is irresponsible."

The safety engineer concluded his e-mail message with: "Admittedly this is over the top in many ways but this is a pretty bad time to get surprised and have to make decisions in the last 20 minutes You can count on us to provide any support you think you need."

NASA made Daugherty's e-mail message available Wednesday on its Web site.

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