- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

Pieces of the Space Shuttle Challenger sit in boxes inside two abandoned missile silos at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

While a former administration at NASA decided to entomb the remnants of the shuttle, which exploded in 1986 shortly after launch, the 84,000 pieces of the Space Shuttle Columbia will be handled differently.

Within a month, debris from Columbia could be in the hands of researchers eager to study the shuttle parts recovered in Texas and Louisiana after the Feb. 1 explosion that killed seven astronauts.

“By studying what’s left, we will be able to build better shuttles. The idea is we want to open this debris up and learn from it,” said Mike Leinbach, shuttle launch director at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and chairman of the Columbia reconstruction team.

The shuttle debris remains spread over a vast hangar floor at Kennedy Space Center.

A group appointed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to oversee its return to flight efforts will examine the debris Aug. 5. After that, officials at Kennedy Space Center will begin organizing it for storage at the facility’s vehicle-assembly building and a portion of it will be shipped out.

People from 20 organizations filed requests by the June 6 deadline with Kennedy Space Center to have access to some of the debris. Mr. Leinbach said he is awaiting final approval from NASA’s headquarters to administer the program to lend debris to researchers.

If he earns that approval, about one-third of the initial requests will be granted, Mr. Leinbach said. Other requests will be scrutinized as they are filed.

A group from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama could be the first to have access to the pieces left from Columbia’s left wing. A piece of foam insulation hit the shuttle’s left wing, creating a 6- to 10-inch gap that let in the scorching gases and destroyed the spacecraft during re-entry, according to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

The researchers at Marshall, which oversees construction of the shuttle’s external fuel tanks and solid rocket boosters, were among the first to request pieces from the left wing.

Researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Aerospace Corp. and NASA’s Langley Research Center also will have access to Columbia’s remains. So will a consortium formed by Brown University, the University of Rhode Island and Cambridge University.

Groups that want to conduct research are mostly interested in testing metal or carbon to determine why it reacted to the fiery crash the way it did, Mr. Leinbach said.

Bill Ailor is trying to understand the dangers posed by materials that re-enter the atmosphere, and there is much to be learned from the loss of Columbia because so much of it was recovered.

Those hazards can be lessened when materials break apart, said Mr. Ailor, director of the Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies at the Aerospace Corp.

Mr. Ailor, who testified March 17 before the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, has proposed examining tanks on board Columbia that contained pressurized gases. Researchers want to find a way to ensure that the tanks break apart on re-entry. Satellites use the same composite metal the tanks are made of.

“This is a unique opportunity to learn something about this for years to come,” Mr. Ailor said.

Mr. Leinbach estimates up to 10 percent of Columbia’s parts initially will be loaned to researchers, but the space center is willing to lend more pieces.

“We would be willing to lend out 100 percent of it if someone wanted 100 percent,” he said.

Kennedy Space Center is proposing to give them access to the material as long as they want. More importantly, they will be able to saw, hammer or otherwise abuse the debris.

“We have very little concern about destructive testing,” Mr. Leinbach said.

Nearly half of the debris is smaller than a cell phone. The smallest pieces are the size of a quarter. One of the largest — a section of the shuttle’s exterior — is 13 feet long by 2 feet wide.

It’s less clear when Columbia debris will be displayed for the general public.

A town in Ohio wants to put some debris on display, but Mr. Leinbach declined to name which one. Kennedy Space Center also is in talks with the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, which may display some parts.

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