- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

The board investigating the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia yesterday criticized NASA’s management for treating the shuttle fleet more like cars than experimental spacecraft.

Retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said NASA cannot consider Columbia’s Feb. 1 disintegration an example of bad luck because it ignored numerous problems within the shuttle program that contributed to the breakup.

“The board is convinced that coming and going into space is a dangerous task. It’s not like taking a drive in your car,” he said.

Investigators also said during a press conference that a hole like the nearly 17-inch-wide gap caused by the latest high-speed foam test Monday on a panel that protects shuttle wings could have been detected with Defense Department spy satellites. That further calls into question the decision by NASA’s senior managers not to ask for photos to be taken during Columbia’s 16-day mission.

“It is within the realm of capability to pick up a hole that size,” Adm. Gehman said.

Investigators issued a recommendation late last month that says NASA must treat the shuttles like experimental vehicles, but yesterday they continued to express shock at NASA’s treatment of spaceflight as routine.

The agency fails to give shuttle flights the scrutiny they deserve, investigators said.

“You need to treat the launch as the first launch, each orbit as the first orbit and each re-entry as the first re-entry,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, a member of the accident investigation board.

The military’s F-16 fighter jet made 1,600 flights during its test program, said accident investigation board member John Logsdon, a George Washington University professor. The shuttle fleet has made a combined 113 flights.

Adm. Gehman said NASA needs to pay closer attention to the anomalies recorded during each launch and each landing. He said investigators will say foam was the direct cause of the disaster, but too many mechanical breakdowns occur to ignore.

Adm. Gehman also said investigators “are not very pleased” that NASA used bolt catchers that could fly free and damage the shuttle. Investigators discovered the potential new threat last month.

Explosions cause the 85-pound bolts to split in half two minutes after liftoff to allow the rocket booster to separate from the shuttle. Half of each bolt is supposed to be trapped by a bolt catcher, but investigators found the device isn’t strong enough to contain the bolts.

NASA also allowed cameras that provide long-range, high-resolution film of each shuttle launch to “atrophy,” Adm. Gehman said.

“I think one of our findings is going to be: NASA, you’re not listening,” Adm. Gehman said after the press conference. “If you had asked a gate guard, he would have told you foam could cause damage.”

Adm. Gehman was making reference to an e-mail released by the space agency June 30. In one e-mail, sent to the Columbia crew members Jan. 23, nine days before they died during re-entry, flight director Steve Stich told the astronauts about the foam damage, but said “we have seen this phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry.”

Foam from the bipod, the metal device that connects the shuttle and external fuel tank, has peeled off seven times and hit shuttles during launch.

NASA engineers are redesigning the bipod to eliminate foam from it and eliminate the risk to the shuttle.

Monday’s test at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio further proved that foam insulation can damage the orbiters, investigators said. That test produced a hole 163/4 inches wide, accident investigation board member Scott Hubbard said. That’s a modest increase over initial measurements immediately after the test.

Board member James Hallock said the hole in Columbia probably was slightly smaller than the hole produced in Monday’s test.

Columbia’s fatal breach likely was no larger than 10 inches wide, he said.

If it were larger, “Columbia would not have made it to the state of Texas,” he said.

Monday’s foam test probably helped convince some officials within NASA that foam could cause damage, Mr. Hubbard said.

“At the beginning, there were people who didn’t appreciate, maybe, the calculation. Or maybe they did the calculation, but it didn’t sink in how much force can be transmitted at 500 miles per hour by even a light material like foam,” he said.

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