- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

Senior NASA engineers worried a day before the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster that the spacecraft's left wing would burn off and cause the deaths of the crew, describing a scenario similar to what investigators believe happened.
They never sent their warnings to NASA's brass, according to dozens of pages of e-mails that the space agency released yesterday.
"Why are we talking about this on the day before landing and not the day after launch?" wrote William C. Anderson, an employee at United Space Alliance LLC, a NASA contractor, less than 24 hours before the shuttle broke apart.
Two days earlier, one frustrated engineer asked, "Any more activity today on the tile damage or are people just relegated to crossing their fingers and hoping for the best?"
After intense debate occurring through phone and e-mails the engineers, supervisors and the head of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., decided against taking the matter to top National Aeronautics and Space Administration managers.
Concerns about Columbia prompted an informal request six days into the mission, on Jan. 22, for the U.S. Strategic Command to take satellite images of suspected damage to the shuttle's left wing. For weeks until yesterday, NASA has denied it made such a request.
The agency withdrew its request a day later amid fears that it might have "cried wolf" and endangered future such requests, according to one e-mail.
Deciding against the satellite request, a NASA official wrote to the Defense Department that Columbia was "in excellent shape" and that insulating foam that struck the shuttle during its mid-January liftoff was "not considered to be a major problem."
In the inter-NASA debate, Jeffrey V. Kling, a flight controller at the Johnson Space Center's Mission Control, foresaw with what turned out to be haunting accuracy what might happen to Columbia during its fiery descent if superheated air penetrated the wheel compartment.
Mr. Kling wrote just 23 hours before the Feb. 1 disaster that his engineering team's recommendation in such an event "is going to be to set up for a bailout (assuming the wing doesn't burn off before we can get the crew out)." He was among the first in Mission Control on Feb. 1 to report a sudden, unexplained loss of data from the shuttle's sensors in the left wing.
The e-mails describe a far broader discussion about the risks to Columbia than the concerns first raised three days earlier by Robert Daugherty, a NASA senior research engineer at Langley. He was primarily concerned about the safety of the shuttle landing with flat tires or wheels damaged from extreme heat.
Mr. Daugherty was responding to questions Jan. 27 from Carlisle Campbell, a NASA engineer at the Johnson Space Center, about how re-entry heat could damage the shuttle's tires. One day into the debate, Mr. Daugherty expressed frustration to Mr. Campbell about the apparent lack of interest over his remark about people being "relegated to crossing their fingers and hoping for the best."
Among the messages was one from Mr. Daugherty's boss at Langley, Mark J. Shuart, to another Langley supervisor, Doug Dwoyer, describing Mr. Daugherty as "the kind of conservative, thorough engineer that NASA needs."
One e-mail, from R.K. "Kevin" McCluney, a shuttle mechanical engineer at the Johnson Space Center, described the risks that could lead to "LOCV" NASA shorthand for loss of crew and vehicle. But Mr. McCluney ultimately recommended that nothing be done unless there was "wholesale loss of data" from sensors in the left wing, in which case controllers would need to decide between a risky landing and a bailout attempt.
"Beats me what the breakpoint would be between the two decisions," Mr. McCluney wrote.
Investigators have reported such a wholesale loss of sensor readings in Columbia's left wing, but it occurred too late to do anything after the shuttle was already racing through Earth's upper atmosphere and moments before its breakup.
NASA has considered a bailout by a shuttle crew feasible only during level, slow flight at about 20,000 feet or lower. Columbia broke up at 207,000 feet while flying 18 times the speed of sound, or roughly 12,500 miles per hour.
Many of the e-mails NASA released yesterday were gathered at the direction of Ron Dittemore, the shuttle's program manager at the Johnson Space Center. In a message written the day the media reported Mr. Daugherty's concerns, Mr. Dittemore asked for copies of the e-mails "so that I can see the traffic and get a feel for the conversations."
Mr. Daugherty's concerns and the ensuing debate among other engineers were sparked days after engineers from the Boeing Co., another NASA contractor, had assured that Columbia could return safely despite potential damage to its left wing on liftoff owing to insulation peeling off its external fuel tank.


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