Wing Leading-Edge Damage "pre-existing" Re-entry

New Analysis Shifts Theory on Shuttle Breakup [NYT]

The Times reports that the leading-edge flaw thesis just rose to leading theory, based on data recorder analysis:

Admiral Gehman also said today that the new data hinted that the shuttle already had severe damage when it began its re-entry, and not a minor flaw that was made worse by re-entry. Engineers had theorized that minor damage to the thin layer of protective silicon carbide on the panels could have allowed hot oxygen to begin eating away at the leading edge, but Admiral Gehman’s comments suggest that this is unlikely.

Damage before re-entry is likely, he said, because the data show extreme heating taking place early, while the force of air passing over the wing was still quite weak. Admiral Gehman spoke in a conference call with reporters this afternoon.

The damage referred to here as “severe” is also described as extant prior to re-entry. Does this implicate the mysterious shed matter, then? The article also notes that the foam debris shower could still be the cause of the damage.

Columbia Investigation Updates

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).

Foam re-emerges as suspect in Columbia disaster: week in review

Columbia investigation update for February 16-22

The investigation into the reentry breakup of STS-107 continued to garner coverage this week. Audio recordings of the last few minutes of transmissions between the doomed shuttle and NASA controllers were released (NYT). Authorities continued to request the participation of the public, both as potential sources of unaired photographic data and in the search for fragments of the shuttle.

It appeared certain that the craft’s disintegration had begun by the time the shuttle was over California (NYT). No debris from that far west has yet been located.

NASA added non-NASA personnel to the investigative panel amid concerns that the original constituents were all too closely linked to the space agency (NYT).

In a peripherally-related development, on Thursday, NASA released basic specification requirements for a shuttle replacement, a four-person space plane.

By February 14, The panel had released a preliminary determination that concluded a small rupture in the shuttle’s left wing had allowed superheated plasma to enter the structure of the wing on re-entry and led to the temperature readings and eventual structural failure (NYT).

As the week began, serious consideration of an orbital impact with space junk, the results of the past few decades of spaceflight launches, was highlighted as a possible cause of the posited hole. Impacts with even very tiny particles at orbital speeds have long been known to pose a threat to spacecraft.

By week’s end, however, it had been reported that investigators were returning to an examination of the external fuel tank insulating foam which was seen to strike the wing at liftoff. Charges had emerged of off-the-books maintenance performed by subcontractors to the foam, and NASA had begun to examine alternative methods for applying and maintaining the insulation prior to the flight (NYT).

As I write this, an AP report disclosed that a Boeing-authored analysis of the liftoff incident states that three chunks of foam, not the single one previously reported, were observed to have impacted the orbiter. The report is “dated eight days before the spacecraft broke apart Feb. 1 over Texas.” Much to my irritation, the Yahoo! link content changed after I wrote this. Here’s a link to the story on an AP wire subscriber’s site – maybe it will hold still long enough to be read.

The New York Times reported “NASA Had Planned Changes on Shuttle Foam” on Thursday, and also “Disagreement Emerges Over Foam on Shuttle Tank” on Friday. This latest story alleges that the foam, if cut or unsurfaced, can absorb water and therefore, the chunk seen to hit the wing could have been denser than NASA has estimated. The Times’ coverage, which so far has been excellent, is rounded up here, although this may be a transient link as the naming scheme is not subject specific, and as I recall, it looks very similar to the 9/11 roundup URL.

Spaceflight Now ran an article noting that the main fuselage of Columbia remained intact for “at least a half-minute” following the last voice transmission from the craft, and also introduced a round-up of their own, the Investigation Status Center. The site also noted the probable location of the wing breach, and reported that investigators have indeed seen U. S. Air Force imagery taken from high-powered telescopes based in Hawaii.

Alas, I still haven’t found my mythical NASA blog (now, of course, this entry will appear in the searckh i just linked). Space folks, if you know where such a thing might be, pass it along!

Columbia updates noted yesterday that the blurry photo presented at a news conference last week, previously reported as stemming from Air Force equipment, was actually produced at an Air Force base by hobbyist-quality equipment, including a 3 1/2 inch telescope and a Macintosh over a decade old.

Spaceflight Now covers the revelation yesterday of a NASA email outlining disaster scenarios with a peculiarly apologetic headline, “What-if email explained“; the story covers both the agency reaction to the email (‘nothing to see here, move along’) and also covers a telemetry reading which reported landing gear deployment at 8:59:06 am, 26 seconds prior to the loss of communications with the doomed craft. The sensor reading is described as the result of a sensor failure rather than a factual record of landing gear deployment at 12,500 mph.

Other developments have included positive identification of the crew’s remains, a revised timeline released by NASA today, and a public call from NASA for more amateur images in the wake of yesterday’s news concerning the blurry ‘Air Force’ photo.

A reasonably thorough search for blogs that are specifically oriented to space and NASA today did not turn up any. I believe I need to dig deeper – surely there’s a blogger out there writing about some of these issues from the inside.

STS-107 Mission emblem explained

sts107_patch.jpgSTS-107 Mission emblem and notes covers every little design element on the Columbia mission emblem, in excruciating detail.

The particular thing I’d been wondering about was, “What’s the odd alphabetic symbol in the center of the design?”

It’s the scientific symbol for microgravity.

via Deckchairs on the Titanic.

I was curious about this more more than casual reasons – for several years I designed the emblems and logos of a great number of local labor unions throughout the Pacific Northwest, and the particular needs of large, committee-driven organizations for visual symbology that can be worn is something that still interests me.

The level of detailed, unbelievably literal symbology in this instance is by no means atypical. It’s exactly what the market for such designs requires – every design element must be specifically accounted for and approved. It’s a peculiar and sometimes frustrating aspect of developing this sort of thing.

Wey-hey, you rolling river

I would direct your attention to my Blimp Week chestnut, The Wreck of the Shenandoah and Blimp Week Followup Pt. III, in which the lyrics to a song commemorating the loss of the airship are reproduced.

I had just drawn a connection in my own mind with the loss of the Columbia to the loss of the Shenandoah when comments began to appear on the older story noting the parallels as well.

For now, I think the most interesting points are the relative similarity of the role of the great airships and space travel in the public imagination of the day, and the fact that both ships were named after mythological figures that also happen to be great American waterways.

I have also reverted to the former colorscheme here, as the black-themed one was intended as a mourning scheme. However, I believe the darker, more contrasty colors looked better than the current bright reds and expect to be experimenting wth additional color choices this week.


Weekend news concerning the shuttle inquiry boils down to two developments: NASA had previously identified leading-edge wing failure as a potential cause of re-entry catastrophe, and on a previous shuttle mission, a wastewater vent located near the left wing’s leading edge had developed a basketball-sized lump of ice.

Subsequent to the ice-forming incident, the vents on the shuttles were fitted with heaters.

Some speculation emerged in the context of the leading-edge wing failure story concerning the possibility that Columbia might have collided with a particle of space junk, possibly as early as the second day in orbit.

Spacefllight Now: NASA studies telemetry for signs of orbital impact

NYT: Shuttle Testing Suggested Wings Were Vulnerable and an interactive with a nice graphic cutaway of the wing’s structure.

Oakland Tribune (AP story): Investigation focuses on possible ice chunk on vents (I saw this in the Seattle P-I, but they didn’t have on their website – silly paper!)

Columbia updates

Air Force imagery confirms Columbia wing damaged is the topper today, at Spaceflight Now (an Aviation Week story).

The Chronicle is continuing to build on the purple-lighting-bolt story, including a detailed discussion on upper-atmosphere electricity discharges that’s interesting in its’ own right.

In the story iself, the image to the left of the headshot is a link to a larger graphic that includes photos of the sort of phenomena the reporter and scientist are exploring in the story.

UPDATE: NASA examines Air Force Photos of Shuttle, notes the NYT. The story includes a photo of the image on a large screen over the shoulder of a NASA official, and there appears to be an irregularity in the shape of the left wing (which appears on the lower side of the image).

However, it’s not at all conclusive, and more analysis of the photo is sure to be forthcoming.

UPDATE 2: Spaceflight Now has the image as a discrete graphic. Their article backs up my initial impression above. However, the NASA briefing photo seen at the Times appears to have some minor differences, probably reflective of the conditions the image was displayed under.

Interestingly, the NYT story cites the Aviation Week story seen at the top of this entry. The later story, also at Spaceflight Now, quotes James Dittemore, whom I beleive to be the official in the NYT photo.

He says, in part, “I’m aware there may be some of you who are saying this photo is revealing. We have looked at it, we had it during the week, and it’s not tremendously revealing to us yet. I’m not an expert at looking at these types of photos and so we’re asking experts to do an evaluation of the photo … to help us understand if there’s anything wrong with the left wing.”

Man Conquers Space, postscript

Just prior to the news of Columbia‘s loss this week, the black humor of the universe arranged for David at Surfaces Rendered to link my posting of the long email interview we did that became the basis for a short Cinescape piece.

As I was perusing Columbia-related links, I noticed an interesting section within Dan Shippey’s Delta 7 Studios site. Dan is the gent that made his very nice cardmodel of the Columbia available as a kind of memorial.

sturnada2.jpgDelta 7’s models appear to have a relatively high degree of detail along with a clarity of construction that leads me to describe them as elegant. I was examining his wares, thinking, “Boy, I wish I had time to build that,” when I noticed this subsection on his site amid the models of historic and designed-but-never built spacecraft:

Retro Rockets is the home of Dan’s collection of golden-era SF rocket models, including as may be seen here, the very Saturn Shuttle that figures so prominently in David’s Man Conquers Space project.

There’s a passel of other cool ships here as well, including the obligatory free model, “Rosie Retrorocket.”

California Columbia photo to surface?

Mysterious purple streak hitting Columbia 7 minutes before it disintegrated in unreproduced photo: SF Chronicle opens the floodgates.

The day that this story is published, it’s worth noting, NASA explicitly downplayed [NYT] the leading “tank foam debris” theory.

Sure will be interesting when this photo is finally published.

UPDATE: Rob Falk notes further coverage of the West Coast photographic evidence at the Chronicle.

Rob is an amateur astronomer and avid skygazer, I bet his insights will be helpful to me over the next few months on this matter.

Columbia: 1981

(Click images for a 640 w px view of the clipping; click that view for a 1500 px view)

In 1981, the United States launched the first space shuttle into orbit. Named Columbia, she succeeded an earlier test model never intended for orbital flight named Enterprise, in a partial bow to a sustained fan campaign from the Star Trek camp.

In an earlier cross country flight aboard an absurdly modified 747, an issue had become apparent with respect to the intended first orbital shuttle’s myriad ceramic tiles. At airspeed aboard the back of the 747, Columbia had shed a large quantity of the ceramic tiles intended to safeguard her and her crew during re-entry.

Amid handwringing, a solution that addressed the wholesale tile shedding was implemented, and in April, 1981 the first orbtial space shuttle, Columbia, roared skyward, opening, it was thought, a new era in space travel, with up to 30 annual launches of a fleet of the new “space truck.”

Concern about the new shuttle’s tile performance was proved justified, as up to sixteen tiles were lost at liftoff. NASA apparently employed certain national security resources to examine the belly of the craft while in orbit.

After this examination, the determination was made to attempt a landing, and so it happened.

As the article notes, “millions” helped bring Columbia back. I recall our teacher in my freshman drawing class arranging to have a television brought in that we could watch. The images were strangely boring, which surprised me at the time. Of course, boring was what the space shuttle program was intended to be, and routine is what was hoped for.

As we all know, it didn’t quite work out that way. When Challenger exploded in 1986, the year prior had seen a record number of shuttle flights – nine or ten, if my non-rocket scientist memory serves. The program was never to approach the projected 30 annual round trips, and of course is even less likely to now, in light of Columbia‘s loss.

Embedded images are from, respectively, Time Magazine, the first page of the section in Columbia’s inaugural launch, in the issue dated April 20, 1981, and the Bloomington, Indiana Herald-Telephone, April 14, 1981, and April 16, 1981. I do not reproduce the entire Time Magazine article.