Skip to comments.NASA Identifies Foam Flaw That Killed Astronauts
Posted on 08/13/2004 3:36:38 PM PDT by ZGuy
The foam that struck the space shuttle Columbia soon after liftoff -- resulting in the deaths of seven astronauts -- was defective, the result of applying insulation to the shuttle's external fuel tank, NASA said on Friday.
The official investigation into the accident, conducted by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, left the matter open, since none of the foam or the fuel tank could be recovered for study.
A suitcase-sized chunk of foam from an area of the tank known as the left bipod, one of three areas where struts secure the orbiter to the fuel tank during liftoff, broke off 61 seconds into the flight on Jan. 16 of last year. It gouged a large hole in Columbia's left wing.
The damage went undetected during the shuttle's 16-day mission, but caused the nation's oldest spacecraft to break apart under the stress of re-entering the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, killing the astronauts.
"We now believe, with the testing that we've done, that defects certainly played a major part in the loss. We are convinced of that," said Neil Otte, chief engineer for the external tanks project. He spoke at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the half-million pieces of every shuttle fuel tank come together.
The fault apparently was not with the chemical makeup of the foam, which insulates the tanks and prevents ice from forming on the outside when 500,000 gallons of supercold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen are pumped aboard hours before liftoff.
Instead, Otte said NASA concluded after extensive testing that the process of applying some sections of foam by hand with spray guns was at fault.
Gaps, or voids, were often left, and tests done since the Columbia accident have shown liquid hydrogen could seep into those voids. After launch, the gas inside the voids starts to heat up and expand, causing large pieces of insulation to pop off.
NASA said this happens on about 60 percent of its shuttle launches.
For the bipod foam, the entire ramp was apparently torn away. It weighed only 1.67 pounds (0.75 kg), but at the speed involved, it hit the orbiter with enough force to shatter the reinforced carbon-carbon panels of the wing's leading edge.
NASA has made extensive changes in the foam-application process, but still has tests and perhaps more procedural changes before the tanks can be certified for flight.
"It was not the fault of the guys on the floor; they were just doing the process we gave them," Otte said. "I agree with the (accident investigation board) that we did not have a real understanding of the process. Our process for putting foam on was giving us a product different than what we certified."
Recertification is now the biggest obstacle for the tank program. New standards require that no foam pieces heavier than about half an ounce can come off the tank during the first 135 seconds of flight. That is much smaller than the divots that have routinely popped off.
NASA also hopes to recertify the 11 fuel tanks that were ready for flight prior to Columbia once modifications are made. Each tank represents about a $40 million investment.
(I wish I was looking for a good name for a punk band.)
They're indirectly stating that envirowacky policy is at fault, but not coming out and saying so.
I do hope they get whatever application process down to a perfect science quickly.
This is an obvious whitewash of the environmentalists who destroyed the shuttle. If the original foam, using standard application methods, would have worked without having breakoff-causing voids, then the fault of the disaster still lies strictly with them for forcing the use of an inferior product to save a miniscule amount of pollution. The article does not address the difference in efficacy at all while attempting to change the focus from the material itself to procedures.
So it takes nasa over a year to figure out what FReepers told them during take off- what a bunch of govt jerks!
Well said. Hippies have killed a lot of people and wasted billions of taxpayer dollars.
That's not much of an excuse.
Yep, FR knew at the time.
Somebody please explain the foam situation and what changes were made. I used to work at JSC until Challenger.
There are other design changes around the bipod area, as well. More particularly, it is fitted with heaters to keep ice from forming. My recall is fuzzy on the matter (I get, skim then delete NASA news -- freebie maillist, some interesting tidbits)
I think I read something a while back that the original application process involved Freon and that they changed it because of the envirowackos.
"They used the new EPA Approved insulation....so go back to the old (more resistant) insulation and save time/$$$$/lives. To hell w/ the political correctness of the insulation."
The old tanks are too heavy to allow the shuttle to reach the space station and carry cargo. They need to design a new spaceship to carry humans. Maybe Burt Rutan will help them.
IMHO, Rachel Carson and her ilk indirectly caused the deaths of more people than Hitler.
No it was the manufacturing of the foam itself that involved Freon. They changed that to a foam that was more environmentally friendly. But, geeze it's not like setting off those big solids could ever be environmentally friendly. If they'd built the shuttle to the original design, with a fly-back booster, there would have been no external tank, thus no foam and also no big solid boosters. Design defects in the boosters (and NASA bureaucrats too stupid to understand the limitations of those boosters) is what caused the first shuttle explosion.
Unfortunately the technology he used is not scalable to orbit. :-(
I think if the X-15 had been carried to its logical conclusion, we would have SSTO today. Water under the bridge now. Also NERVA should never have been canceled.
The foam didn't kill our astronauts. Negligence did!