- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

NASA released internal documents yesterday indicating three pieces of debris may have struck the Space Shuttle Columbia during liftoff three weeks ago.

The new report differs from previous analyses of potential damage to Columbia. Prior reports examined potential damage from a single piece of foam insulation.

Aerospace giant Boeing Co. measured the potential damage in three reports conducted for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration after Columbia's Jan. 16 launch.

Two reports are dated Jan. 21 and Jan. 23. The latest report, dated Jan. 24, indicates damage to the shuttle may have been greater than suspected.

The Jan. 24 analysis indicates three pieces of foam each measuring 20 inches long hit Columbia. Two are estimated to be 10 inches wide, and one is estimated at 16 inches wide.

Boeing presented its analysis to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from all three reports Jan. 27.

Despite the Jan. 24 conclusion that three pieces of debris hit the orbiter, Boeing said the debris strikes did not jeopardize Columbia or pose a safety concern. Mission managers of the Columbia flight agreed with Boeing's conclusions.

NASA engineers have said since the shuttle exploded Feb. 1 that they don't think a direct hit to Columbia's left wing by foam insulation could have caused enough damage to destroy the shuttle, but they are re-examining those conclusions.

"The bottom line is that at the time, everybody believed the conclusion they reached was right. Now they are going back to review that data to see if there are any new conclusions," NASA spokesman Michael Curie said.

The independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board has said Columbia's left wing almost certainly suffered a breach during the flight. Investigators visited the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana almost immediately after the shuttle disaster to tour the plant where workers apply foam insulation to external fuel tanks.

The foam insulation is applied to the fuel tank to protect the liquid hydrogen and oxygen contained inside.

Board spokeswoman Laura Brown said investigators will review the information in the Jan. 24 report.

"The board has directed additional analysis on the path of the debris," she said.

Investigators must determine whether a single piece of foam struck the wing, then broke into three pieces or whether three pieces hit the shuttle.

Mr. Curie said the Jan. 24 report represents a worst-case scenario but that it is still not clear whether three pieces struck Columbia. One piece of foam could have hit the orbiter before breaking into three pieces.

Investigators will also try to determine whether the debris contained metal. The foam is assumed to have separated from the shuttle's external fuel tank or a metal bipod that connects the orbiter and the fuel tank.

NASA said it decided to released the reports because of intense interest from the media.

The space agency also released e-mails yesterday from a safety engineer who warned of a potential breach near the shuttle's left wheel.

Robert Daugherty, an engineer at NASA's Langley research facility in Hampton, Va., warned in an e-mail dated Jan. 29 that "one of the bigger concerns" was that damage to thermal tiles near Columbia's wheel compartment seal could permit a breach there.

The e-mails were not given to mission managers during Columbia's flight but will be turned over to investigators.

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