Spaceflight Now

Team talked foam impact re-analysis just after disaster
Posted: March 11, 2003

NASA managers meeting 90 minutes after the Columbia disaster Feb. 1 discussed a re-analysis of the potential damage caused by foam debris slamming into the shuttle's left wing during launch. But senior managers decided the public would be told, during an initial press conference, that the debris hit "on the left wing was reviewed and not determined to be safety of flight issue."

That is certainly true. During Columbia's mission, an analysis carried out by Boeing determined Columbia could safely land despite potentially significant damage to its left wing from the foam debris hit. NASA's mission management team accepted that analysis and the issue was formally closed out.

But it is interesting to note that in the minutes of the first meeting of NASA's Mishap Response Team, which convened at 10:30 a.m. - roughly 90 minutes after Columbia's breakup over Texas - a re-analysis of the Boeing assessment had already been ordered.

"Mr. Ralph Roe of the Space Shuttle Vehicle Engineering Office reported that the Mission Evaluation Room (MER) had invoked their emergency plan and were generating narratives of observations and producing engineering timelines," the minutes read. "A meeting is scheduled later this afternoon to status timeline development. The ascent ET foam debris data is being re-analyzed."

Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore, the minutes say, "stated that information on the left wing and all data, especially debris, associated with it is very important and noted the importance of an immediate daylight search."

A few sentences later, the minutes show NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and William Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight, planned to hold a news conference "to summarize the facts including: 1) loss of contact at 9:00 am EST, 2) that a contingency had been officially declared at 9:16 a.m. EST, 3) receipt of a video from a TV station southeast of Dallas, 4) all mission data was being impounded, 5) the reported ascent foam debris hit on the left wing was reviewed and not determined to be safety of flight issue, and 6) there was no indication of foul play."

NASA managers have said throughout that Boeing's analysis was accepted as valid and that no one expected any problems during Columbia's re-entry. But the loss of data from the left wing prior to the shuttle's breakup prompted a very speedy decision to re-assess the analysis. It is not yet known where that re-analysis stands or what it might show.

Earth Calendar
NEW! This amazing 2003 calendar features stunning images of mountain ranges, volcanoes, rivers, and oceans obtained from previous NASA space shuttle missions.