- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2003

Tests on a fiberglass replica of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s left wing caused extensive damage, bolstering the working theory that foam from the shuttle’s external fuel tank pierced the orbiter and caused a hole that led to to its fiery disintegration Feb. 1.

“I think it establishes that foam can break [carbon panels] in a realistic event,” Columbia Accident Investigation Board member Scott Hubbard said yesterday.

More tests are scheduled today at the Southwest Research Institute, a private, nonprofit facility in San Antonio. In a one-shot test, investigators will fire a piece of foam insulation at carbon panels taken from the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Since the panels are the same material as that which lined Columbia’s left wing, the tests are expected to provide a clearer picture of the damage caused by the foam strike.

Investigators believe a piece of foam insulation hit Columbia’s left wing 81 seconds after launch Jan. 16, but they still are trying to link conclusively the debris strike with the wing damage.

The test, conducted May 29, didn’t break the fiberglass panels, but it left them deformed and it dislodged a seal between two panels.

The scope of damage surprised investigators. A film of the test that Mr. Hubbard presented yesterday during a briefing for reporters showed the replica of the wing shaking from the impact.

“I thought to myself, ‘this is more than I expected.’ I thought, ‘oh my God, this is something. This isn’t just a light bounce. This is a significant effect,’” said Mr. Hubbard, who is the director of NASA’s Ames Research Center.

In the test, investigators fired at 531 mph a 1.67-pound piece of foam — about the size of a basketball — at a mockup of Columbia’s left wing.

Damage to the seal on the replica left a gap about 22 inches long and one-half an inch wide. If Columbia suffered similar damage, scorching atmospheric gases could have penetrated the orbiter.

Investigators believe a seal from between carbon panels could be the object seen floating away from Columbia during its second day in orbit.

Five sensors within the mockup of the wing confirmed the impact was greater than expected by providing readings that exceeded expectations based on pre-test projections.

Some readings were “almost to the breaking point,” Mr. Hubbard said.

Damage to the fiberglass replica is significant because fiberglass is up to four times stronger than the carbon panels that line the front edge of shuttle wings.

The same impact on carbon panels could cause even more damage because the material is more brittle than fiberglass.

“Certainly we want to see how the [actual carbon panel] responds,” Mr. Hubbard said.

The carbon panels play a valuable role in protecting the shuttles during re-entry because they withstand the heat, which reaches 3,000 degrees.

NASA concluded during the shuttle’s 16-day mission that a piece of foam was unlikely to cause extensive damage to the carbon panels.

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