Skip to comments.Mass of Data but No Clear Image as NASA Begins Hunt for Cause
Posted on 02/01/2003 2:22:17 PM PST by GeneD
It could be days, weeks or even months before NASA has a clear idea of what went wrong, if ever.
"There's a strong possibility they may never know," said John Tylko, a space shuttle expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There are no on-board flight recorders that are recoverable," as is usually the case in commercial airplane crashes.
Nor were scores of cameras recording Columbia's every move, as was the case 17 years ago when the Challenger exploded.
Even so, experts list six possible causes of the disaster. In order of decreasing likelihood, they are:
¶Problems with the shuttle's tile heat shield, which was apparently damaged slightly at blast off;
¶An explosion of some of the shuttle's fuels and oxidizers, which are under high pressure;
¶The collapse of some part of the shuttle's structure, which is aged;
¶Faulty navigation for the fiery re-entry, possibly caused by a computer problem;
¶The impact of a speeding rock or space debris;
¶Terrorism, perhaps by a technician at the launching site.
Eugene E. Covert, an aerospace expert who helped investigate the Challenger disaster for the government, said it would be foolish to speculate.
"Speculating at this point gives you a big opportunity to be wrong," Mr. Covert said. "It's better to wait and be right."
He said, however, that the forensic problem might be so hard that engineers might never learn what went wrong. "It's a distinct possibility."
NASA has a trove of data that it will carefully sift for clues in the days and weeks ahead. In a way, Mr. Covert said, the flight data recorded on NASA computers is "the biggest black box in the world."
But sorting through it could be an immense task. The final report on what destroyed the Challenger, which exploded in flames minutes after launching on Jan. 28, 1986, was issued nearly five months after the disaster.
Even today, experts still debate details of how a leaky booster rocket turned the Challenger into a ball of flame. With Columbia, a problem for aerospace sleuths will be a lack of imagery in its last minutes. Challenger blew up in sight of the Florida launching pad, where long-range cameras recorded many details of its fiery demise.
By contrast, Columbia experienced its problem high in the atmosphere, where no known cameras were tracking its descent.
Though he acknowledges photographs can be misleading, Dr. Covert said the lack of photographs could be a severe problem.
Yesterday, the images of the Columbia descending that were played repeatedly on national television were taken only after it became clear that the shuttle was in trouble. They showed it breaking into pieces.
NASA officials discounted reports that the Columbia was on an unusual course during its descent for security reasons related to the presence of an Israeli astronaut on board.
"There was nothing unusual about this trajectory at all," said Rob Navias, a NASA spokesman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
One of the likeliest causes of the Columbia disaster is considered to be faulty tiles, which cover the shuttle's lower side and repulse intense heats during re-entry.
On Jan. 16, shortly after Columbia lifted off, a piece of insulating foam on its external fuel tank came off and was believed to have hit the left wing of the shuttle.
Leroy Cain, the lead flight director in mission control, assured reporters on Friday that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing and tiles was minor and posed no safety hazard.
"We took a very thorough look at the situation with the tile on the left wing, and we have no concerns, whatsoever," Mr. Cain said. "Therefore, we haven't changed anything with respect to our trajectory design."
Experts say a burn-through of a loose tile or protective surface could trigger catastrophic failure in the fiery heat of re-entry. One way to reduce that risk is to modify the shuttle's flight path.
In past shuttle missions, NASA has used long-range cameras on the ground and perhaps had spy agencies use cameras in space to examine the winged spaceships for signs of damage. NASA has not said whether such precautions were taken on this mission.
Experts also said Columbia was not carrying one of NASA's robot arm in its 60-foot payload bay. In the past, instruments on the payload arm have been used to look for damage to tiles.
Another possibility is a chemical explosion, experts say. The shuttles are loaded with tanks carrying hydrogen, oxygen and exotic fuels to power its many engines. Just before descent, the shuttle starts three extra power units, which run on hydrazine, a highly volatile fuel.
Humanity will survive a few hours without your inanities posted on an internet forum. No class, period.
Desiring a few hours to mourn heroes is not "procrastination." It is simple human decency, of which you clearly have none. Nor is it an insult to call your posts inanities. It is an understatement.
The Shuttle is complicated because what it does is complicated.
The Shuttle is unsafe because of compromises made in the preengineering phase, demanded by the same Congress that canceled the Boeing SST and Apollo 18, 19, and 20.
The privatization angle is this: By demanding that we go to the moon before 1970 and giving NASA the job, the government ended independent R&D for spacefaring. In 1961!.
Even promising government technologies like X-20 (Dyna-Soar) gave way to a brute-force development of what was really 1940s technology.
We have had a severe shortage of private R&D that could be applied to spacefaring ever since. We now have a thirty-year old compromised design, and that's all we have. Nothing new in the pipeline, nothing new on the drawing board.
A decision needs to be made whether we as a people are up to the challenge of space exploration.
If we are, we need a crash program to design a modern, fully-reusable earth orbit vehicle, and we need to go to Mars.
BTW, W, there would be a few jobs associated with this program, and for once, they would be involved in producing something of value.
I do not think the Shuttle in its present form will fly again.