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!
"The damage went undetected during the shuttle's 16-day mission. . . "
I recall that some have said that the damage was observed through telescopes, but was ignored.
I am sure that the shuttle breaking up and burning caused more pollution then the "environment friendly" insulation ever prevented.
Honor the dead astronauts - Slap a Greenie!
Brings back some bad memories.
Funny, I didn't read that in the report. Foam from the same location broke off on several launches before the change to CFC free foam.
I was in a control room monitoring the Challenger launch. For the Columbia, I was at home.
Sure it is. Scale up the $30 million to $1.5 billion and there you are!
God rest their souls.
I thought they switched adhesives, to a more "environmentally friendly" one.
Add about 10 more billion and you got it. :-)
The amateurs will have trouble beating NASA's costs to orbit or anywhere beyond. For their manned sounding rocket mission they can because NASA has neglected that niche.
Also for all of those NASA bashers out there, the amateurs have access to billions of dollars worth of data, engineering, and technology that came out of NASA.
I can't imagine the agony and dread you felt while watching that.
We do, tons of materials science research has been done. Just the studies of how to weld exotic metals is a good start. Even with that, it will still cost serious $ to build and operate an amateur orbital mission.
Thanks, I seen this earlier.
What a shame. What a damn shame.
I appreciate the thought. Thank you! It was more like disbelief at first. Then I got to see it over and over on the TV for days. I still get a little sick to my stomach every time I see that footage.
I agree completely!
Burt couldn't spend enough money solving the problem, so, it isn't going to happen.
On one of the threads here on FR concerning the "foam", IIRC , there were some Freepers who stated that the reason the "foam" composite was changed on the tanks, was due to the complaints from the "Save-The-(fill in your favorite sea creature here)."
They complained that after the tanks completed their tasks, and fell back into the ocean to be retrieved later, the "creatures of the sea", who mistook it for a food scorce, were dying because of it's "toxic" properties.
So NASA tried to come up with a substitute, and what they are using now was the substitute.
IIRC,( and if any Freepers can check this to see if I got it wrong),the tank that was used on the ill-fated was the FIRST application of the material. THAT tank was to be used on a previous shuttle flight, but that flight was canceled, the tank was "unused", so it was "returned to inventory."
The tank(the one with the FIRST attempt at applying the "new" insulation,) was brought out of "storage" because the other tanks were already with other shuttles getting prepared for future launches, so it was put into use on the mission that ended in such tragedy.
It's not like I have ever been wrong about something before,(at least according to my wife,)but IMHO, what I posted here was (seared....seared I tell you) close to what I remember freepers explaining about the "foam".
So, then, like, what are they gonna do? Wrap the environmentally-friendly foam with environmentally-friendly chicken wire to hold it all in place?
Just build the "space elevator" and be done with it. I know, we don't have the nanotube technology yet. Oh well.
Some of FR knew. The NASA-bots were quite aggressive and profane in defending NASA's denial.
They're going out of their way to try and say it's not the fault of the extreme left envirocommies. Ridiculous.
I'm not sure how true this is. Apparently, the conpound was changed from the original formula to satisfy environmental whining. Foam shearing off has been an issue ever since.
There are more problems with that than just the material science. The top of the structure will oscillate and there is also the huge electric potential this would generate. We ran some back of the envelope numbers and hit some snags right off the top.
IMHO, the real problem was the banning of the solvents formerly used to prep the area for bonding and replacing them with the "environmentally-friendly" ones.
This was discussed heavily on bones' thread, which I can't seem to locate at the moment. Also, bones has been banned.
If the space elevator cable breaks below the midpoint, would the resulting falling cable debris be as catastrophic as some have described?