- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

NASA officials warned the Space Shuttle Columbia crew about potential damage to the orbiter in an e-mail message on Jan. 23 but said there was no reason to worry about re-entry.

NASA officials only mentioned damage that occurred during liftoff Jan. 16 to prepare them for an in-orbit press conference with three television stations.

“There is one item that I would like to make you aware of for the upcoming [public affairs office] event … and for future [public affairs] events later in the mission. This item is not even worth mentioning other than wanting to make sure that you are not surprised by it in a question from a reporter,” NASA space shuttle flight Director Steve Stich wrote.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration yesterday released e-mail sent from Johnson Space Center to the Columbia crew about damage to the shuttle from foam insulation that peeled off the external tank about 81 seconds after liftoff and hit the shuttle’s left wing.

In his Jan. 23 e-mail message, Mr. Stich goes on to explain that cameras recorded foam shedding from the external tank, hitting the left wing and shattering. He also indicates there was little concern within the shuttle program that foam could damage Columbia.

“Experts have reviewed the high-speed photography and there is no concern for” carbon panels on the wing’s leading edge. “We have seen this same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry.”

His assessment preceded completion of an analysis for NASA of the impact of debris on Columbia.

In addition, Mr. Stich makes no mention of a raging debate within NASA about the scope of damage to Columbia and what to do about it. Shuttle managers ignored requests from NASA engineers to get photographs of Columbia during its 16-day mission from Defense Department spy satellites. They ignored the requests because they didn’t believe the impact from foam insulation caused significant damage to the shuttle.

Columbia disintegrated during re-entry on Feb. 1, killing seven crew members.

Mr. Stich sent his e-mail message to Rick Husband, commander of the Columbia mission, and William McCool, Columbia’s pilot.

Mr. Husband responded on Jan. 25.

“Thanks a million Steve!” he wrote.

Jeffrey Hanley, another space shuttle flight director, sent an e-mail message to Mr. Husband and Mr. McCool on Jan. 24 that included a video file of liftoff.

“Rick, fyi … here’s a short video clip,” Mr. Hanley wrote.

Mr. Husband’s reply on Jan. 27 is as brief as his response two days prior.

“Thanks Jeff! And thanks for the super work!” he wrote.

Mr. Husband’s two e-mail messages carry a disclaimer at the end that says “this is private/personal mail and not for release to media.”

The crew’s brief responses show they were unconcerned about the debris and busy carrying out their mission, NASA spokesman Kyle Herring said.

“This is not an unusual response. They are so busy with the mission, you don’t send a message and expect a lengthy response,” he said.

Accident investigators have examined video taken during liftoff to determine that the piece of foam insulation that hit Columbia weighed about 1.67 pounds. Investigators believe the foam strike caused a hole Columbia’s left wing that let scorching gases penetrate the shuttle.

The e-mail messages from Mr. Stich and Mr. Hanley were not included in the so-called operational e-mail sent to the Columbia crew each day that were filled with daily instructions, Mr. Herring said.

They were sent separately because analysis was still under way to determine the extent of damage to Columbia. Boeing Co., a NASA contractor that was asked by shuttle officials to examine the foam impact, didn’t complete that analysis until Jan. 24.

With that report in hand, NASA’s mission management team ended its inquiry into the debris strike on Jan. 27.

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