- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The panel investigating the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia yesterday urged NASA to use on-board cameras that let the space agency see live views of critical areas of the shuttle during future launches.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration should use digital cameras so it can download images of external fuel tanks and the shuttle wings during liftoff.

NASA can’t do that now, though it experimented with the technology last year.

Investigators urged NASA to find a way to take high-resolution photos of the fuel tank until it drops away from the shuttle about 81/2 minutes after liftoff.

They also advised NASA to find a way to take digital images of the underside of the wing leading edges and the forward section of the thermal protection system of each wing.

All the images should be available immediately, investigators said.

Taking photographs of the shuttle “during launch and ascent provides engineering data, including the ability to examine the space shuttle system for any unexpected debris or other anomalies,” investigators wrote in a statement.

Using digital photography could help NASA immediately spot pieces of insulating foam that shed from external fuel tanks during launch. Investigators believe Columbia disintegrated because a 1.67-pound piece of foam insulation came off its fuel tank and hit the left wing’s leading edge, piercing a thermal protection panel and allowing scorching gases to penetrate the shuttle during re-entry.

NASA has two 35 mm cameras mounted to each of its three remaining shuttles. But the space agency can’t see the images until the shuttles return from orbit. Columbia also had cameras, none of which were recovered.

NASA experimented with digital photography during Atlantis’ launch in October. The agency mounted a camera to its external fuel tank and saw live images of the launch until a solid rocket booster separated from Atlantis about two minutes after liftoff, when the lens was smudged.

“That gives us something to build on,” NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said. “The point is to get a total picture of the shuttle.”

Investigators credited the agency with progress on a new approach to recording launches with on-board cameras. They said they are “aware of the excellent preliminary work already in progress at NASA in this area.”

The agency has been working on it since February. Mr. Beutel said the agency’s work to get real-time images is incomplete, but it may not be difficult to meet one of the new recommendations.

He said NASA may be able to receive digital images of the external tank simply by converting one of its two 35 mm cameras to a digital device.

But it’s still not clear how NASA will get real-time images of the underside of the wing leading edges and the forward section of the thermal protection system of each wing. Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour have robotic arms with cameras, but they aren’t long enough to photograph the entire underside of the shuttles.

Investigators also have said NASA must develop a way for astronauts to inspect and repair damage to shuttles during orbit, and that requirement could “dovetail” with the recommendation to take photos of the leading edge, Mr. Beutel said.

This is the second time investigators have criticized NASA for having poor images of the shuttle. The 13-member independent panel also has recommended the agency improve the cameras it uses for long-range filming of launches.

Yesterday was the fifth time investigators issued recommendations since Columbia disintegrated Feb. 1.

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