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Shuttle 'flaw' captured
By Phillip Coorey in New York
February 04, 2003

NASA has released extraordinary pictures which it fears may prove space shuttle Columbia was doomed from the moment it took off.

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The images, released yesterday, show how a lump of insulation foam flew off the main fuel tank and smashed into the shuttle's left wing as it soared into the sky.

Experts believe the impact knocked loose a vital heat-protective tile and the seemingly minute piece was enough to make the shuttle break up when it re-entered the atmosphere on Sunday, killing all seven aboard.

As the shock waves continued around the world yesterday, a vast task force was combing the Texas countryside for wreckage and human remains.

Meanwhile NASA officials said the tile theory was the most likely explanation for the tragedy.

"We are gaining some confidence that it was a thermal problem rather than a structural indicator," shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said.

New information gleaned in the 24 hours after the disaster showed the shuttle experienced an abnormal rise in temperature in the left fuselage, six minutes before the shuttle disintegrated during re-entry.

It was known already that electronic temperature and tyre pressure measurement systems on the left wing began failing seven minutes before disintegration.

Another key revelation was the left side of the craft began to drag, causing the automatic pilot to adjust the roll trims and elevons.

"It can be indicative of rough tile, it can be indicative of, perhaps, a missing tile, we're not sure yet," Mr Dittemore said.

"We do know it's indicative that there was an increase in drag on the left side of the vehicle.

"We've never seen it to this degree."

NASA is reinvestigating the possibility the heat-proof tiles were damaged seriously 80 seconds after lift-off on January 16, when the icy piece of styrofoam broke from the fuel tank and hit the wing.

They are now matching the sequence in which the various measurement systems malfunctioned with the position of the electronics on the left of the shuttle.

This could pinpoint where the tile damage was, if any.

Mr Dittemore said there was no evidence the seven-member crew was alarmed by the take-off incident, nor moments before they all died, when the shuttle was still flying well.

The crew consisted of Americans Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson and Indian-born Kalpana Chawla, plus Israeli Ilan Ramon.

NASA discovered the foam incident the day after the launch when engineers routinely studied footage of the launch frame by frame.

Mr Dittemore said there were two days of discussion, including canvassing the worst-case scenario.

"Our technical experts believed the debris that hit the outer orbiter was inconsequential. It was not going to represent an impact to our flight control qualities or our safety."

The crew was alerted while in space and informed the damage was minor.

Mr Dittemore stressed again there was nothing anyone could do even if there were significant damage.

The shuttle, on a research mission, was without its robotic arm which, with a mounted camera, would have enabled the crew to inspect the area.

Even if the arm were on the shuttle, Mr Dittemore said its capability to look at the tiles and assess damage in such an area of the craft was "very, very limited".

The damage was under the wing and a tethered spacewalker trying to access the underside of the craft "could cause more damage than we were trying to fix".

Even if this could be surmounted, there was no capacity to fix tiles anyway.

NASA tried to develop a tile-repair technique early in the 22-year-old shuttle program but it was found not to be feasible.

"The risk was greater to send a crew over the side to try to do something that was very hard to do, than it was to try to fix whatever problem that we thought was not a significant risk," he said. "So we made those trades and, finally, abandoned the idea of trying to have some tile-repair kit or tile-repair capability."

If the tile theory proves correct, the crew was doomed to burn up during re-entry.

"There's not other option," Mr Dittemore said. "If you want to come back home, you have got to come back through the atmosphere.

"And the way this vehicle flies, you have got to get the nose in the air and you have to protect yourselves from the (thermal) environment."


More reports on the tragedy
Shuttle debris hits Texas and Louisiana
Witnesses felt earth shake
Astronauts never had a chance
No clue in last message

Blame
The search for answers begins
NASA 'should have ordered' space walk
Columbia 'obsolete': astronaut

The people
Crew paid the ultimate price
Pride turns to grief for families
Bush reaches out to families

The aftermath
Crew remains found: police
Aussie aids shuttle inquiry
Russia sends cargo rocket to space station

The Daily Telegraph         from this link

Clues in shuttle's final minutes
By Paul Recer
February 03, 2003

NASA engineers settled into their long, joyless task of figuring out how space shuttle Columbia broke apart, saying conditions in the shuttle's final minutes point to a possible problem with its critical heat-protection tiles.

NASA says new evidence shows that the temperature on Columbia's left side shot up and the ship was buffeted by greater wind resistance before it disintegrated over Texas, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Those conditions forced its automatic pilot to quickly change course.

The combination of these events suggests that thermal tiles may have been damaged during launch. The shuttle's exterior is covered with thousands of tiles designed to protect it from the extreme heat of re-entry.

Despite the possible clues, shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore stressed yesterday that the information was only preliminary.

"We've got some more detective work," Dittemore said. "But we're making progress inch by inch."

While engineers at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston analysed billions of bits of electronic data radioed to Earth by Columbia on Saturday morning, state and federal officials collected bits and pieces of the shattered spacecraft over a broad swath of east Texas and Louisiana.

The debris was being catalogued and trucked to an Air Force base in Louisiana. Some human remains also have been recovered from the astronaut crew.

President George W Bush had arranged a meeting today with NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe to get an update on the disaster.

Computer data indicates that moments before Columbia broke apart on Saturday on its way toward a landing in Florida, temperatures rose in the wheel well and on the fuselage on the left side of the shuttle.

The abnormal readings were on the same side of the craft that was hit by peeling fuel-tank insulation during the craft's January 16 launch, NASA engineers said.

Dittemore said engineers also were planning to examine 32 seconds of computer data that earlier had been ignored because it was considered flawed. The data came just before all communications with Columbia were lost.

NASA engineers spotted the peeling fuel tank insulation on high speed cameras that recorded the launch of Columbia. Dittemore said the possible effects on the tiles from the insulation were studied aggressively while the shuttle was still aloft, but engineers concluded "it did not represent a safety concern".

"As we gather more evidence, certainly the evidence may take us in another direction," he said.

Dittemore said engineering data shows a temperature rise of 11 to 17 degrees Celsius in the left wheel well about seven minutes before the spacecraft's last radio transmission. There followed a rise of about 32 degrees over five minutes in the left hand side of the fuselage above the wing, he said.

The shuttle temperature rose the normal eight degrees on the right side over the same period, he said. All the readings came from sensors underneath the thermal tiles, on the aluminium hull of the craft.

The temperature spikes were accompanied by an increased drag, or wind resistance, that forced Columbia's automated flight control system to make rapid adjustments to maintain stability. Dittemore said the corrections were the largest ever for a shuttle re-entry, but still within the craft's capability.

Lockheed, the maker of the fuel tank under scrutiny, said yesterday that NASA used an older version of the tank, which the space agency began phasing out in 2000. NASA's preflight press information stated the shuttle was using one of the newer super-lightweight fuel tanks.

Harry Wadsworth, a spokesman for Lockheed, said most shuttle launches use the "super-lightweight" tank and the older version is no longer made. Wadsworth said he did not know if there was a difference in how insulation was installed on the two types of tanks.

Wadsworth said the tank used aboard the Columbia mission was manufactured in November 2000 and delivered to NASA the next month. Only one more of the older tanks is left, he said.

Dittemore said the tank, though no longer manufactured, had been used for many years and was between 2700kg and 3150kg heavier than the newer version. Still, "we had no reason to doubt its capability".

Earlier yesterday, O'Keefe named a former navy admiral to oversee an independent review of the accident, and said investigators initially would focus on whether the piece of insulation caused the damage that brought down the shuttle.

While O'Keefe stressed that the space agency was not locking into a single scenario of what caused the crash, the insulation was "one of the areas we're looking at first, early, to make sure that the investigative team is concentrating on that theory".

For a second day, searchers scoured forests and rural areas of east Texas and western Louisiana for bits of metal, ceramic tile, computer chips and insulation from the shattered spacecraft.

State and federal officials, treating the investigation like a multi-county crime scene, were protecting the debris until it can be catalogued, carefully collected and then brought to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

The effort to reconstruct what is left of Columbia into a rough outline of the shuttle will be tedious and painstaking.

 

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