Probing Columbia's fiery fate

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  May 9, 2003 at 2:05 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 9 (UPI) -- It was just a tiny bit of damage in the front edge of the left wing, probably caused by a blow from an unusually large piece of insulating foam that broke away on takeoff -- and foam had fallen off before.

But this time the tumbling foam was large enough, and the angle at which it hit harmful enough that it doomed the seven gallant astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia in February and sent them plunging to a fiery doom across the skies of the American Southwest.

This was the conclusion of the independent board headed by retired Adm. Harold Gehman, the New York Times reported Wednesday. The paper also reported Gehman as saying he and the other members of the board believed the crucial damage carbon-carbon leading edge panels of the wing were indeed caused by the foam chunk that hit them only 82 seconds after takeoff.

Gehman stressed a blow from that foam chunk was only the most probable cause of the disaster and that his inquiry could not find specific "smoking gun," hard scientific evidence to nail it down, although they are still looking for it. But they were able to confirm the close location of the tragically small but crucial piece of damage down to the multi-billion dollar reusable spacecraft's wing edge. As the New York Times reported, "Evidence provided by a data recorder tied to hundreds of sensors throughout the craft has allowed the investigators to map the path of hot gas through the wing as it burned through bundles of wires, with 164 sensors failing within four minutes."

Here at UPI Analysis, within three days of the tragic disaster, we had focused, as had many other observers, on the possibility that the foam chunk -- large enough to be caught on video -- might have caused ultimately fatal damage to the wing. At the time we speculated that the foam chunk might have knocked loose ceramic tiles from the shuttle's heat shield. Right cause, different damage, same fatal effect.

Could the seven astronauts have been rescued after that tiny piece of damage was done?

Alas, no way. If the insulating foam that struck the shuttle's left wing on take off from Cape Canaveral Jan. 16 did indeed cause fatal damage to the ship's ceramic tile heat shield, they were dead men and women from that moment on, through all their 16-day adventure in space.

Yet, safety escape mechanisms were practical and could have been installed. And indeed, it is a dark and gloomy coincidence worthy of the aura of human incompetence and a malevolent fate surrounding the Columbia space shuttle disaster that if the damage had been done -- and of course detected -- on any other shuttle flight this year, the crew would have had an at least theoretical chance of surviving the experience.

That was because every one of the other five space shuttle missions planned for 2003 was scheduled to fly to the International Space Station. And each of them therefore would have had airlock capability on board that would have allowed the seven or so crew members on board to transfer to the station while emergency relief missions to bring them back to earth could have been attempted by either the United States or Russia, or both.

But the Columbia -- alone of the six planned missions for 2003 -- was not going anywhere near the ISS. And it lacked the fuel and range capabilities to change course in an emergency to ever reach the space station.

But of course, it most likely that even if the damage had happened to one of the later shuttles, it would probably have never even been recognized. After all, in well over 100 shuttle fleet flights over more than 20 years, the 20,000 ceramic tiles on the underside of the amazing machines ensured safe reentry and landing on every occasion -- until Columbia's doomed descent on Saturday, Feb. 1.

But the complacency engendered by this impressive record was similar that of the fabled White Star luxury liner Titanic, which included enough lifeboats for only about half the passengers and crew on its catastrophic maiden voyage. Since the huge 46,000-ton ship was assumed to be unsinkable, who could possibly need more? And if, by some mishap, it was badly damaged, thanks to the miracle of radio communication, then less a than a decade old, there would surely be plenty of time for other ships to come on the scene and evacuate everybody in a leisurely manner.

Instead, as the whole world knows, more than 1,500 people, two-thirds of the total on board, drowned when the Titanic hit that iceberg on a crisp, clear, bitingly cold night in April 1912.

The assumption that no safety escape systems were necessary for the space shuttle was equally false, and resulted in a comparably tragic outcome. Yet such systems were certainly technically feasible. On Aug. 25, 2002, Don Nelson, a 67-year-old retired veteran NASA engineer who had helped design the shuttle, actually pointed this out in a letter to the President of the United States.

Nelson had angrily resigned from NASA in 1999 after previous warnings he had given about shuttle program dangers had gone unheeded. He wrote President George W. Bush in no uncertain terms, "Your intervention is required to prevent another catastrophic space shuttle accident."

Nelson even tried to inform the president that safety ejection systems were quite technically feasible for the shuttle fleet. And he bluntly concluded, "The space shuttle or any space transportation vehicle without crew escape modules will never be safe to transport humans."

These modules could in fact be easily designed, as space engineers know. But they would require that an entire shuttle crew remain locked and passive within teach of their own protection and escape modules during both the takeoff and re-entry phases.

Nelson noted this in his letter to the president. To incorporate crew escape modules in the space shuttle requires that the piloting function be removed from the vehicle."

And has he then noted, the macho culture of NASA was adamantly opposed to such a simple and practical idea.

"Unfortunately," Nelson continued, "the background of the shuttle management is that of former flight controllers and astronauts. They have been trained never to trust automated flight control systems. Therefore, they are adamantly opposed to automation of the space shuttle. Efforts of NASA engineers and contractors to automate the shuttles are met with stern rebukes and reprimands in some cases."

Less than six months before the terrible immolation of the Columbia's seven-person crew, Nelson called on Bush to issue a Presidential Executive Order "that places a moratorium on space shuttle operations. This moratorium must limit shuttle missions to flight crews that do not exceed four members. The moratorium must remain in effect until crew escape modules can be incorporated."

As we have previously noted in UPI Analysis, it took the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy a leisurely more than three months to reply to nelson. And when they did they fobbed him off with the casual dismissal that it was "inappropriate for the President to issue a moratorium on space shuttle missions at this time."

Clearly, the White House officials who drafted the reply did not take seriously Nelson's conclusion that "if this moratorium is ignored ... we can watch in horror and shame as the astronauts face certain death."

Adm. Gehman, who gives every sign of being an old-fashioned straight shooter in his straightforward comments, told the New York Times that his board was determined to probe beyond the immediate disaster into the managerial culture of complacency that led to it.

Two of the nation's fleet of five space shuttles have now been destroyed in catastrophic accidents, killing a total of 14 astronauts -- a greater death toll, than in every flight of the U.S. and Soviet/Russian space programs combined over the past 42 years.

The initial damage to the Columbia was so small, and its consequences so appalling, that the American people, their government and elected Congressional representatives will have to think hard and long before allowing any of its remaining sister ships to fly again.

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