- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

A launch-day mishap that NASA's "best and brightest" technicians repeatedly brushed off as of no danger to Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew "may in fact wind up being the cause" of the catastrophe, the space agency said yesterday.
High-tech cameras detected a block of insulation as hard as a brick and the size of a carry-on suitcase peeling away from a booster fuel tank and pulverizing as it crashed into thermal tiles on the orbiter's left wing 80 seconds after Columbia hurtled away from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 16.
"Although that may in fact wind up being the cause it may certainly be the leading candidate right now we have to go through all the evidence and rule things out very methodically to arrive at 'the' cause," said William F. Readdy, director of spaceflight at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NASA tested the premise using the "somewhat conservative assumption" that the 20-by-16-by-6-inch block of foam insulation weighing 2.67 pounds gave the left wing a glancing blow at supersonic speed near the main landing-gear door, then shattered into dust.
"Worst case … you would not have damage sufficient to cause a catastrophic event" or hinder the crew's ability to fly the craft, said shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore, who announced yesterday the tests would be reanalyzed.
Still, Mr. Dittemore said "we are making the assumption from the start that the external tank [insulation] was the root cause of the problem that lost Columbia."
"That's a drastic assumption and it's sobering," he said.
"I'm the accountable individual," said Mr. Dittemore, who has veto power over safety decisions by the chairman of the mission management team.
He knew of no technical reservations at the time but learned of them later. The threat simulations, he said, now will be reanalyzed "from scratch."
Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Kostelnik, NASA's deputy associate administrator for shuttle and space station activities, yesterday defended the judgment at the time that the damage was minor.
"The best and brightest engineers we have who helped design and build this system looked carefully at all the analysis and the information we had at this time, and made a determination this was not a safety-of-flight issue," Gen. Kostelnik said.
The agency said yesterday that one of the 6-inch square tiles was found in Fort Worth, Texas, indicating it came off Columbia before the breakup and might have been a causal factor.
Mr. Dittemore said NASA dispatched teams "upstream" to New Mexico and Arizona, using computer projections to search for other wing parts or thermal tiles that might have fallen before the craft disintegrated and rained 89 tons of debris from Fort Worth into Louisiana.
NBC News correspondent Jay Barbee reported that an internal memo circulated among NASA engineers Thursday said the block of foam probably gashed several of the 20,000 protective tiles covering spacecraft areas most vulnerable to heat.
Heat sensors in that left wing and left wheel well signaled the first trouble Saturday, seven minutes before Columbia began to disintegrate 39 miles over Texas, killing astronauts Col. Rick D. Husband, Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson, Capt. David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Cmdr. Laurel B. Clark, Cmdr. William C. McCool and Col. Ilan Ramon, who was Israel's first astronaut.
"The damage conditions included one tile missing down to the densified layer of tile and multiple tiles missing over an area of about 7 inches by 30 inches. These thermal analyses indicate possible localized structural damage, but no burn-through and no safety of flight issue," NBC said of the incident first detected by film examiners one day after the launch.
That might have caused the spike in left-wing temperatures of 60 degrees in five minutes during re-entry maneuvers. Computerized controls tried to compensate as drag from the left wing tipped the spacecraft into a steep 57-degree left bank, the largest correction ever for a vehicle returning from space, Mr. Dittemore said.
NASA engineering reports throughout the 16-day trip said the foam incident posed no safety problems. Unlike earlier flights when unexpected events occurred, NASA rejected the idea of using super telescopes to check for damage. Mr. Dittemore said Sunday there would have been no way to repair damage in any event.
The Columbia was the only one of four NASA shuttles incapable of docking at the International Space Station, and it was not equipped for a spacewalk to repair any damaged tiles underneath the spacecraft.
The ceramic tiles were to shield Columbia's aluminum airframe, crew and vulnerable internal parts from re-entry temperatures approaching 3,000 degrees. NASA engineers will seek to determine if the insulation from an older fuel tank penetrated the wing's protective array of tiles. The tank later was discarded into the ocean.
"Everybody seems to have moved to the conclusion that that was the cause, and I'm not sure that we're ready to say that," Mr. Readdy said shortly after NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe briefed President Bush in a 45-minute White House meeting on leads in the investigation.
"While we grieve the loss of these astronauts, the cause of which they died will continue, America's journey into space will go on," Mr. Bush said in a speech to medical scientists at the National Institutes of Health immediately after the closed-door meeting.
In his budget released yesterday but prepared before the disaster, Mr. Bush recommended increased funding for NASA for both 2003 and 2004, including a jump for the shuttle program to $3.9 billion next year.
Mr. Bush is expected to recommit the nation to space exploration at today's memorial service for the astronauts in Houston, scheduled for 12:45 p.m. EST.
Members of two of the four investigating boards arrived yesterday at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, to where debris was being trucked from northeast Texas.
Retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., tapped to head the main independent investigation, was reported at the base, as were members of a separate NASA "mishap investigation board."
Two caskets were brought to the base, accompanied by honor guards with both U.S. and Israeli flags. Remains in the coffins and those found later will be identified through DNA analysis at the specialized military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
"We are trying to recover these national heroes and get them back to their families as soon as possible," Gen. Kostelnik said.
Last night, officials said searchers had found Columbia's nose cone buried deep in a thick pine forest near the Louisiana border.
"It's reasonably intact," said Warren Zehner, a senior coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency. Although it is the largest piece yet found, the cone is not considered key to the investigation.
As the hunt intensified for the disaster's cause and officials considered how it would affect the nation's future space missions, NASA was far more forthcoming than it had been after Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986.
Information was held closely for months afterward and the presidential commission investigating that disaster recommended that the agency be more open in any future disaster.
Manufacturer Lockheed Martin insisted that the tank used in the launch was a version that was phased out after 2000, but NASA's press releases before the flight said Columbia had a new lightweight fuel tank. The older tank is some 6,000 pounds heavier than new ones.
Gen. Kostelnik acknowledged discussion of what he called "vehicle aging issues" but emphasized yesterday that Columbia, despite being NASA's oldest shuttle at 22 years of age and a veteran of 28 launches, was "a very new vehicle" on only its second flight since finishing an 18-month refurbishment.
Mr. Readdy and Gen. Kostelnik said they had not heard of the memo reported yesterday by NBC but that they endorsed the assessment indicating there would be "no burn-through and no safety-of-flight issues." That phrase also was at the end of the memo obtained by NBC.
"We're very aware of the anomaly that was observed," Gen. Kostelnik said.

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