The Final Flight Of The Space Shuttle Columbia

1080 words - 5 pages

At 9 a.m. on February 1st, 2003, disaster struck the space shuttle program: Columbia had disintegrated upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere just 16 minutes before it was supposed to land at Kennedy Space Center (National Geographic News par 2-3). The shuttle had been damaged by little more than foam from the external tank but it was enough to make it susceptible to the high temperatures it faced as it descended through the atmosphere. The idea that a space shuttle can endure damage that is unforeseen or unavoidable is well within reason. However, in retrospect it was found that foam strikes were present on most shuttle missions and NASA had a history of diminishing their recognized danger ...view middle of the document...

During launch, a piece of foam from the external fuel tank had dislodged and struck Columbia at over 500 miles per hour, tearing an eight inch diameter section of its heat shield from the leading edge of its left wing (CAIB 60-61). This hole had a negligible effect on the craft until re-entry, where the shuttle’s underbelly is subject to temperatures in excess of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The absence of shielding allowed hot plasma to eat away at the exposed structure, leading to the loss of the left wing. This caused a loss of flight stability followed by disintegration of the entire ship because of aerodynamic forces it was not equipped to handle (McDanels 163). This begs the question, what was known about the strike during the mission?
The foam strike was actually discovered one day after launch, well before re-entry at the end of the 17 day mission. Video from the launch was examined by the Intercenter Photo Working Group, as is done for every shuttle mission. It showed a chunk of foam from the left bipod ramp on the external tank detaching and striking somewhere on the left wing of the orbiter at 81.9 seconds after liftoff, but not much more could be seen. The concern of possible damage that could not be detected from the video footage caused them to request an image of the space shuttle while still in orbit and spurred the creation of a Debris Assessment Team to review the extent of the damage further. There were multiple requests to image the damaged left wing from engineers to the program managers, all of which were rejected. Therefore, the Debris Assessment Team could only use computer simulations, though inadequate, to assess the damage to the shuttle. Still, they concluded that “localized heating damage would most likely occur during re-entry,” although this was not enough to convince the program managers that it was a pressing issue (CAIB 38).
Considering the amount of work and technical difficulties involved with sending manned spacecraft with many tons of payload into orbit, the dismissal of any damage during a mission implies such damage has been experienced before and is well understood. In fact, damage from foam...

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