- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 26 (UPI) — With chilling foresight, a NASA engineer outlined a disaster scenario the day before the loss of Columbia that came eerily close to matching the sensor malfunctions, rising temperatures and other problems that preceded the breakup of the orbiter and the loss of the crew, internal e-mails released by NASA Wednesday show.

The e-mails, requested by shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore, show engineers and flight directors continued to discuss and debate "what-if" scenarios stemming from suspected tile damage to the shuttle's left wing. The discussions continued through Jan. 31, the day before Columbia's fatal re-entry to Earth's atmosphere after a 16-day research mission.

A panel investigating the disaster has pledged a full review of NASA and contractor engineering assessments and decision management as it searches for the cause of the accident.

A discussion began the day after Columbia reached orbit about possible tile damage on the shuttle's left wing, which was struck by foam falling from the external fuel tank during launch. Boeing engineers suspected minor damage, but not anything that would lead to the loss of the vehicle and its crew. The debate, however, was far from closed, the e-mails show.

Johnson Space Center engineer Kevin McCluney wrote the following the day before the shuttle's demise:

"Let's surmise just what sort of signature we'd see if a limited stream of hot plasma did get into the (left wing landing gear wheel) well. … First would be a temperature rise for the tires, brakes, strut actuator and the uplock actuator return. The pressure … would rise given enough time, and assuming the tire(s don't) get holed. Then the data would start dropping out as the electrical wiring is severed, both to the transducers and the wiring to the valves, etc."

The scenario is an accurate description of what happened during the final minutes of Columbia's flight.

Flight director Jeffrey Kling, who sat in the control room and watched helplessly as the shuttle disintegrated a day later, wrote the following in response to the e-mail:

"If there is a serious breach in the wheel well and we are concerned about the wheel properties changing to the point that the wheel fails then there must also be a concern with the wing structure — also aluminum … If there was hot plasma sneaking into the wheel wells, we would see increases in our landing gear temperatures and likely our tire pressures. If we actually saw our instrumentation to the wheel wells disappear during entry then I suspect that the gear will not deploy anyway because the wires that control the pyros and all the hydraulic valves would burn up too. Ultimately our recommendation in that case is going to be to set up for a bailout — assuming the wing doesn't burn off before we can get the crew out."

During briefings the week following the accident, Dittemore said even if engineers had determined the damage from the falling foam was extensive, nothing could have been done, as the astronauts do not have spacewalking options or the materials and techniques to repair tile damage while in orbit. Requests to use high-powered Air Force telescopes to try to image the shuttle likewise were not made due to the benign engineering assessments and the determination the pictures probably would not have been clear enough to assess any damage.

The e-mails ended about midday Friday, with David Lechner, a space shuttle mechanical systems engineer in Houston, writing to the Langley Research Center's Robert Daugherty, who initiated the e-mail discussions.

"Like everyone, we hope that the debris impact analysis is correct and all this discussion is moot," Daugherty wrote.

Initial findings indicate hot gases entered the shuttle's left wing through a breach in the structure, causing huge temperature spikes and knocking out sensors just before Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing seven astronauts.

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