Skip to comments.NASA Worker Downplayed Threat From Foam
Posted on 07/22/2003 10:41:20 AM PDT by anymouse
The NASA official who led the mission management team during Columbia's doomed flight swiftly dismissed as a safety threat the launch-day foam strike to the left wing, transcripts released Tuesday show.
"Really, I don't think there is much we can do," Linda Ham said on Jan. 21, five days after a 1 1/2-pound chunk of foam insulation smashed into Columbia's wing during liftoff. "It's not really a factor during the flight because there isn't much we can do about it."
Referring to a foam strike two flights earlier, during Atlantis' launch in October, Ham said, "I'm not sure if the area is exactly the same where the foam came from that, but the material properties and density of the foam wouldn't do any damage."
The impact to one of Atlantis' booster rockets caused only minor damage.
The remarks were part of transcripts of five management team meetings held during the space shuttle flight. NASA released written and audio transcripts Tuesday.
"I hope we had good flight rationale then," Ham said, referring to the decision to continue flying even with the problem of foam breaking off.
The independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board has since ascertained that the foam strike to Columbia almost certainly created a 6- to 10-inch hole in the vulnerable leading edge of the left wing, allowing hot gases to enter the spaceship during re-entry on Feb. 1. The shuttle broke apart over Texas, just 16 minutes short of its Florida homecoming. All seven astronauts were killed.
The chairman of the investigation board, retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., said in May that NASA could have launched Atlantis to rescue the Columbia astronauts if the space agency had known early in the flight about the severity of the wing damage.
Unknown to the mission management team at the time, it was the largest piece of foam insulation to ever strike a shuttle. The estimated impact speed was more than 500 mph.
An official close to the investigation board said Ham's comments point out NASA's assumption that "there was nothing they could do."
"Nobody thought she was being reckless," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It comes out as being very cold. There was no discussion."
One of the engineers who briefed Ham on the potential damage caused by the foam impact, Don McCormack, said in the transcript that there could be "significant tile damage" but stressed: "We don't see a safety of flight issue." The conversation indicates that Ham and the others considered the problem to be more of a maintenance issue for the next flight, despite expressed uncertainties about the debris size and impact location.
None of the mission management team meetings began with discussion of the foam strike and potential wing damage. Rather, that was mentioned well after a variety of nagging problems in orbit, such as water leaks, high cabin temperatures, even a jammed camera. The last meeting, on Jan. 30, did not directly address the issue at all.
The foam impact was considered so trivial by managers, in fact, that the astronauts aboard Columbia were not informed about it until a week into their flight. Mission Control sent up a 16-second video clip of the foam strike "just so they are armed if they get any questions in the press conferences," said Phil Engelauf, a mission operations representative.
"We made it very clear to them, no concerns," Engelauf told the mission management team Jan. 24.
The mission management team met five times during Columbia's 16-day science research mission, much fewer than usual. The team, which has about 15 members, is supposed to meet daily.
Accident investigators say NASA management failure will share equal blame with the foam strike in their final report, to be released at the end of August.
Some of the key decision-makers in Columbia's doomed flight Ham, shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore, and Lambert Austin, manager of the systems integration office already have been moved into other positions or will move on.
NASA official Linda Ham is shown in this undated NASA handout photo. Ham led the mission management team during Columbia's doomed flight. She had dismissed as a safety threat the launch-day foam strike to the left wing. (AP Photo/NASA)
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