- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

A flawed design allowed foam insulation to peel off the Space Shuttle Columbia’s external fuel tank and slam into the spacecraft, investigators said yesterday.

The foam came from a V-shaped metal piece called a bipod, anchoring the 154-foot external fuel tank to the shuttle.

“The defects we found in the bipod foam construction are in our view not due to human error,” said Harold W. Gehman Jr., chairman of the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board. “They are inherent in the process. We’re not trying to find fault with the individuals who applied this foam.”

Much of the foam insulation on the metal bipod is sprayed on and then shaped by hand.

“This is a manual process, and [because its a manual process] you’re going to find some deficiencies,” said Navy Rear Admiral Stephen Turcotte, an investigation board member.

NASA will make changes, he said.

“I can pretty much safely say you won’t see these bipods again on the shuttle,” he said. But “before you draw conclusions [and] throw stones, as it were, at the people or the process … the focus should be on the design.”

Foam insulation on the rest of the external fuel tank is sprayed on with a machine.

Investigators have determined that foam hit the shuttle’s left wing and that Columbia had a hole in the wing when it re-entered the atmosphere. But they haven’t linked the foam strike and the hole, which allowed scorching gases to enter.

The 2.5-pound piece of foam insulation could have been traveling at up to 700 feet per second when it hit the shuttle 82 seconds after launch. Tests that begin May 28 could help determine whether the insulation could have pierced carbon panels that lined the front edge of Columbia’s wings.

Investigators also said yesterday they now know that foam insulation peeled from the bipod on at least seven of 70 video-recorded shuttle launches. NASA has made 113 shuttle flights but recorded just 70. The others occurred at night or cameras weren’t in use.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said last week the agency knew of just four instances where foam came off a bipod and hit a shuttle.

“This has been a persistent problem that has not been solved,” investigation board member Steven Wallace said.

Since the foam strikes never led to a disaster until Feb. 1, when Columbia disintegrated over Texas and killed seven astronauts, NASA may have come to ignore the problem, he said.

NASA “built a history during which there had never been any catastrophic consequence of that. So you have to look at whether there was a success-based optimism that could have evolved from that,” he said.

Mr. Gehman said during a Senate hearing last week that foam insulation peeled from the external fuel tank hundreds of times on every shuttle flight since 1981, when Columbia made the first shuttle flight. But foam has peeled from the bipod just a handful of times.

Foam insulation first came off the bipod in during a launch in 1983. Before Columbia’s Jan. 16 launch, foam insulation shed from Atlantis’s bipod during liftoff in October.

Mr. Gehman said that even while investigators continue to look at the foam insulation as the cause of Columbia’s breakup, the scenario doesn’t quite mirror that of 1986, when investigators determined a faulty O-ring led to the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The O-ring was a seal connecting segments of one of Challenger’s booster rockets. It allowed gases to leak, setting off an explosion that killed seven astronauts.

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