Yee-owtch! I’ve been struggling to get time to update the Columbia story here for a couple weeks, and it’s been tough, what with the outbreak of Armageddon and all.
Over a month ago, on February 21, when last I revisited the state of affairs in the investigation into the loss of the shuttle Columbia on mission STS-107, preliminary findings indicated that a rupture in the shuttle’s wing had admitted superheated plasma into the structure, eventually destroying the wing. Debate over the cause of the rupture continued.
NASA had released audiotape and transcripts of the last few minutes of communication with the ground, and the astronaut’s funeral services had begun.
Since then, several news cycles of coverage have come and gone. News links below will be largely to NYT or internal video of the shuttle’s flight deck had survived re-entry, but that the tape ended prior to the period of catastrophic failures of interest to investigators. Additional news included the release of imagery of the shuttle in orbit taken January 28 by an Air Force telescope on Maui, probably the source of the reports that Air Force gear had been used to look at Columbia. Additionally, tiles found 40 miles west of Lubbock, Texas have unusual signs of heat damage; these tiles represent the westernmost material from the Columbia recovered to date.
Lubbock, of course, is remembered as the home of Buddy Holly. ‘Nuff said.
Additionally, by the end of February, significant attention continued to be focused on internal NASA communication concerning worries about possible tile damage due to the foam impacts at liftoff – on February 28, the author of some of these emails came forward to explicitly disavow any thought that his emails were more than “what-if” scenario projections (Another author came forward on March 10).
During this same news cycle, more information was released concerning a small piece of debris that appeared to detach itself from the shuttle and orbit in tandem for a couple of days before undergoing reentry on January 20.
By March 8, investigators had narrowed to 10 the probable scenarios causing the craft’s disintegration, all featuring the hypothesized front-wing gap. Foam shed at liftoff from the large external tank is continues to play the role of suspected case of the rupture.
On March 14, the board of investigation was told that a high-ranking NASA official rejected the possibility of requesting inter-agency help in the form of a spy-satellite inspection of Columbia‘s underside on the basis of NASA conclusions that the craft would land safely.
On March 19, the orbiter experiments recorder – unique to Columbia in the shuttle fleet – was located on the ground by search crews near Hemphill, Texas. On Monday, March 24, it was reported that the recorder’s data is thought to be largely intact and may provide valuable insight into the last few seconds of Columbia‘s final flight.
Overall, the tone of the board of inquiry has grown increasingly critical of NASA’s internal culture, building on suspicions that the same sort of risk-blindness held to be at fault in the Challenger disaster led to poor decisions in the case of Columbia. Continuing revelations about the open internal discussion of the possibility of serious tile damage leading to no investigative action have enhanced this perception.
NASA response to these concerns – and their airing in the press – has taken on an increasingly defensive tone, as participants in the discussion come forward to discount their own viewpoints expressed while the shuttle was in orbit.
War news has not obviously disrupted the reporting on the breakup, but as the Bush administration’s lean to closely-held data increases in the wake of hard news from the front, I expect to see some parallel obstructionism in this investigation, especially if it becomes clearer that contractors with involvement in defense assets may have been involved in crucial maintenance activity.
It’s also possible that lessened public interest as a result of the war news will actually lower the stakes somewhat and permit a fuller look at the information on the table, if NASA personnel don’t feel that the agency’s future is on the line (a probable motivation for the recantations noted above).