- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

A central figure in the investigation of the Space Shuttle Columbia breakup said yesterday that no one should be blamed for the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

In her first comments since Columbia disintegrated over Texas Feb. 1, Linda Ham defended herself against criticism that she discounted the potential for damage from a piece of foam insulation that ripped a hole in the spacecraft and led to the deaths of seven astronauts.

“It goes without saying that we were all trying to do the right thing. … I don’t believe anyone is at fault for this,” said Mrs. Ham, shuttle program integration manager and chairman of Columbia’s mission-management team. “Based on the information I had at the time, we were really doing the best we could.”

Her comments came hours after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration released 61 pages of transcripts from five meetings of the space shuttle’s mission-management team, which Mrs. Ham led.

Transcripts of five meetings indicate the mission-management team simply didn’t grasp the scope of damage caused by foam insulation from the external tank nor its potential to harm the 22-year-old shuttle.

Mrs. Ham, speaking yesterday at a press conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston, also said she never approved a request for satellite images of Columbia because she couldn’t identify who asked for the photographs. Lower-ranking engineers within the shuttle program wanted the space agency to obtain emergency photos of Columbia using Defense Department spy satellites.

Mrs. Ham, who was removed from her job July 2 but hasn’t been reassigned, said she never thought the shuttle sustained crippling damage from foam during launch because analysis from a NASA contractor assured her it was able to re-enter the atmosphere safely.

In hindsight, Mrs. Ham said, that was a bad decision.

“I did trust that their analysis and the work they did was correct,” she said.

Transcripts released yesterday show that there were few discussions about the foam strike during Columbia’s 16-day mission. The first mention of potential damage from insulation didn’t come until a meeting Jan. 21, five days after foam hit Columbia about 82 seconds after liftoff.

When NASA engineer Don McCormack, the head of Johnson Space Center’s mission-evaluation room, said a review of the foam strike had started, Mrs. Ham responded that she didn’t think the foam strike was important.

“I don’t think there is much we can do,” she said.

Mrs. Ham said yesterday that she made the comment because she knew there was no equipment aboard Columbia to let astronauts repair damaged thermal-protection tiles.

The most extensive discussion about damage from foam insulation occurred Jan. 24, when Mr. McCormack said NASA contractor Boeing Co. concluded that the foam could harm the carbon panels along the leading edge of the left wing but not enough to let in scorching gases nor burn through the wing.

“No burn-through means no catastrophic damage, and localized heating damage would mean a tile replacement?” Mrs. Ham asked at the meeting.

Mr. McCormack said the damage from foam would merely cause more work for engineers who would prepare Columbia for its next launch.

“No safety of flight and no issue for this mission, nothing that we’re going to do different?” Mrs. Ham asked.

“Right,” Mr. McCormack said.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined that a 1.67-pound piece of foam caused a hole 6 inches to 10 inches in diameter that let in scorching gases that destroyed the spacecraft.

Skepticism within NASA about potential damage from foam insulation probably sprang from the widely held belief that the shuttle was too strong to be harmed by the light material, investigators said.

Phil Engelauf, a NASA mission-operations director, said at the Houston press conference yesterday that the shuttle program made the mistake of relying on Boeing’s analysis.

But he said it’s wrong to blame Mrs. Ham and her team for the loss.

“Yes, we lost the crew. Yes, we lost the vehicle. But it isn’t because of lack of good intent,” Mr. Engelauf said.

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