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Shuttle crew was told about debris in case media asked
Tue Jul 1, 9:29 AM ET
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Traci Watson USA TODAY

The astronauts on space shuttle Columbia learned that debris had hit the shuttle's wing only because a flight controller was worried that a reporter would ask the crew about the incident, NASA (news - web sites) records released Monday show.


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Investigators now believe that the debris started a chain of events that led to Columbia's disintegration above Texas Feb. 1. All seven crewmembers died.

Other records released Monday reveal the flight controllers' alarm in the minutes before the disaster.

On Thursday, Jan. 23, flight director Steve Stich sent a personal e-mail to Columbia's commander, Rick

 Husband, and pilot, William McCool.

Stich's e-mail said he wanted to notify the crew that a piece of foam had fallen off the external fuel tank during launch Jan. 16 and hit the shuttle's left wing.

The event, Stich said in the e-mail, ''is not even worth mentioning'' except that there was a news conference with the crew in a few days. He told Husband and McCool that he wanted ''to make sure that you are not surprised by it in a question from a reporter.'' The e-mail said, ''Experts have reviewed the high speed photography, and there is no concern for RCC or tile damage. . . . there is absolutely no concern for entry.''

Reinforced carbon-carbon, or RCC, is the heat-resistant material on the front edge of the shuttle's wing. Heat-protective tiles cover the rest of the wing.

The expert review to which Stich referred was a preliminary analysis by engineers from NASA and Boeing, a NASA contractor. The final analysis, completed three days after Stich's e-mail, also concluded that the foam strike was not a safety hazard.

Husband responded several days later. His e-mail began, ''Thanks a million Steve!'' It closed with a ''happy face'' made of a colon and a parenthesis.

Former shuttle commander Carl Meade said it's not unusual for a shuttle crew to hear so little from the ground about some problems. ''You've got to remember, on every flight, there are several of these things that turn up, that turn out to be nothing. Of course, in hindsight, that's not the right thing to do.''

As Columbia started its return to Earth, flight controllers at Johnson Space Center in Houston chatted and joked as they monitored the shuttle's progress, according to a newly released transcript.

A few minutes later, a mechanical-systems operator reported that no data were coming from some of Columbia's sensors.

''What in the world?'' the operator said.

''This is not funny,'' said Jeffrey Kling, the head of the mechanical-systems team.

Kling and the operator puzzled over what happened. Then more measurements disappeared.

''I am not believing this,'' Kling said.

''No . . . '' the operator said.

Columbia disintegrated shortly thereafter.

Columbia Photos Botched, Officials Say
Wed Jul 2, 1:09 AM ET
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By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Columbia accident investigators Tuesday said NASA (news - web sites) botched the photographing of the ill-fated launch, and urged the space agency to do a better job of filming shuttle liftoffs to detect potentially catastrophic problems.

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Two sets of long-range cameras provided usable images for evaluating the blow to Columbia's left wing from a piece of foam, but a third set that would have provided a better view was out of focus and yielded fuzzy pictures.

Sharp pictures of the 1 1/2-pound chunk of foam insulation smashing into the wing's leading edge at more than 500 mph might have led NASA to take the mishap more seriously.

The evaluation "was hampered by lack of high-resolution, high-speed cameras," the investigators said in a statement.

While Columbia was still in orbit, the NASA engineer in charge of Kennedy Space Center (news - web sites)'s launch data analysis team complained about the disappointing film results.

"The loss of one camera can be, and is, significant. This proved that and then some," Armando Oliu wrote in an e-mail dated Jan. 21, five days after Columbia's liftoff. He said he was not sure the out-of-focus camera "would have given us the information we desire, but we certainly will not know now."

Oliu concluded: "This is simply unacceptable from an engineering perspective."

Columbia broke apart over Texas during re-entry on Feb. 1 after hot gases penetrated a gap in the leading edge and melted the wing. All seven astronauts were killed.

In its fourth preliminary finding released in advance of its final report, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said the long-range tracking cameras at Kennedy and the nearby Air Force station are inadequate. The panel suggested that consideration be given to using ships and planes to provide additional views.

"The space shuttle is still a developmental vehicle, and engineering data from each launch is essential to further understand the vehicle," the board said.

The board said the camera stations have not been upgraded to reflect changes in launch patterns associated with trips to the international space station (news - web sites), which now account for the vast majority of missions.

NASA should upgrade the system to provide at least three useful views of the shuttle from liftoff to at least the point where the booster rockets separate two minutes into the flight, the investigators said.

Last week, board member Steven Wallace of the Federal Aviation Administration (news - web sites) noted that the on-board cameras that film the fuel tank's separation from the orbiter cannot be accessed until the shuttle lands. He indicated NASA may equip each fuel tank with a video camera to beam back live pictures of the entire eight-minute ascent.

This so-called shuttlecam made its debut in October during a launch by Atlantis, but the stunning views were obscured by debris on the camera when the booster rockets peeled away.

NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said an agency review of policies involving launch imagery has been under way since March. "They're looking at everything," he said.

Last Friday, the board recommended that NASA find a way for astronauts to inspect their ships for damage and make emergency repairs in orbit. In April, the investigators suggested that NASA improve its preflight inspection of wing panels and obtain spy-satellite images of the shuttle during every flight to check for damage.

The board expects to release its final report by the end of the month.


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