- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

The first tests to measure damage from foam-insulation strikes did little damage to thermal protection tiles, said a member of the independent panel looking into the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

But upcoming tests on carbon panels that lined Columbia’s wings could produce different results. Investigators are looking for a connection between a hole in the shuttle’s left wing and a direct hit from foam insulation 82 seconds after liftoff Jan. 16.

“I don’t think we know at this point what we might find,” said Scott Hubbard, a member of the 13-member Columbia Accident Investigation Board and director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

Extensive analysis from video and data from on-board sensors allowed investigators to determine that scorching gas penetrated a hole in the left wing. But investigators also wanted to shoot foam at the landing-gear door, the focus of early speculation among engineers trying to pinpoint damage on Columbia.

Insignificant damage to the thermal protection tiles during testing has allowed investigators to rule out Columbia’s landing-gear door as the location of the breach.

“We can take that off the table,” Mr. Hubbard said during a press conference yesterday in Houston.

In an initial round of five tests at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio conducted May 1-9, investigators used a nitrogen-powered rifle to fire pieces of foam at tiles attached to a landing-gear door from the Enterprise, a prototype spaceship. Foam shot at speeds of 717 to 827 feet per second caused only small craters and streaks in the tiles.

In tests on carbon panels, investigators will try to account for the foam’s spinning before it hit Columbia. That is significant because a rotating object produces more energy than one that isn’t spinning. Accident investigators estimate the foam insulation spun at 18 to 30 times per second.

“It could be the equivalent of [increasing the velocity by] several hundred feet a second,” Mr. Hubbard said.

The tests will measure damage to carbon panels and to the hardware around the panels, including bolts and T-seals. The first tests, which will begin May 24, will be conducted on a steel structure and on a fiberglass model of a shuttle wing’s leading edge.

Then investigators will fire foam at carbon panels and seals that were removed from the Space Shuttle Discovery.

In their latest estimates, accident investigators think a 2.5-pound chunk of foam insulation was traveling at 775 feet per second when it slammed into the shuttle and left a hole measuring 1,240 cubic inches.

Even if foam impact tests on the wing panels don’t cause damage similar to the hole that seems to have led to Columbia’s disintegration, investigators won’t scrap the results.

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