- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003


Superheated gases breached the left wing of Space Shuttle Atlantis during its fiery return to Earth in hauntingly similar fashion to the fatal demise of Columbia nearly three years later, according to internal NASA documents.

Unlike Columbia, Atlantis suffered no irreparable damage during the May 2000 episode and, after repairs, returned to flight just four months later. NASA ordered fleetwide changes in how employees install protective wing panels and sealant materials.

The small leak through a seam in Atlantis’ wing during its return from the International Space Station was disclosed in documents sought by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.

The mission commander was James Halsell, a shuttle veteran who is coordinating NASA’s effort to return the shuttles to flight.

One of the seven Atlantis astronauts, Mary Ellen Weber, said NASA never told her about the breach, which was not discovered until the shuttle had landed, and she did not know whether NASA had told any other crew members.

“There are thousands and thousands of things that can go wrong, and the crew is very much aware this can happen,” Mrs. Weber said. “Certainly, when you learn about this, if it had progressed, it could have been much more dire.”

Mrs. Weber operated the robotic arm aboard Atlantis and flew aboard Discovery in July 1995. She described Atlantis’ return to Earth as mostly routine and remembered seeing an orange glow from hot gases dancing outside the shuttle windows.

Attempts by AP to reach the other astronauts by telephone through family members and NASA offices in Houston and Washington were unsuccessful; one Atlantis crewman was a Russian cosmonaut and another has left NASA to return to the Air Force.

NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said crews and engineers generally participate in two months of meetings to discuss their experiences and spacecraft conditions. He could not say whether the shuttle’s commander or pilot was told about the wing breach, which NASA blamed on incorrectly installed sealant material.

Some aerospace scientists expressed surprise that superheated gases ever had leaked inside a shuttle’s wing. Although protective wing panels have been found damaged, even cracked, the Columbia disaster was widely believed outside NASA to have been the first such breach.

“Very little information about the flaws of the tile system ever make it into the open literature, so those of us who work on this … seldom hear much about serious problems such as this one,” said Steven P. Schneider, an associate professor at Purdue University’s Aerospace Sciences Lab. “I’ve never heard this sort of leak occurred.”

NASA said it later determined Atlantis’ exterior wing panels were not damaged by the overheating despite being discolored from the high temperatures.

Aluminum structures inside the wing “looked outstanding,” NASA said. Other parts immediately behind the wing panels were covered with a glassy material, apparently from melted insulating tile and other sealant material.

Mr. Hartsfield said all damaged parts were replaced.

The space agency formally reported the damage to its Program Requirements Control Board, an internal safety oversight body, which ordered fleetwide improvements in the installation of sealant materials before Atlantis was allowed to launch for its mission in September 2000. Atlantis is expected to be the next shuttle into space when NASA is cleared to resume flights.

Although damage inside Atlantis’ left wing was detected post-flight, NASA worried about the shuttle’s return even before the discovery.

During liftoff, a 6-inch chunk of ice had smashed against the back edge of the right wing; so controllers adjusted Atlantis’ flight to rapidly cool its wings before the fiery trip through the atmosphere, NASA documents showed.

It was impossible to know whether this cooling technique, called a thermal conditioning maneuver, also helped minimize heat damage inside Atlantis’ defective left wing. NASA later determined damage on the right wing was relatively minor.

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