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Columbia's Problems Began on Left Wing
NYT.com ^

Posted on 02/01/2003 4:25:45 PM PST by Sub-Driver

Columbia's Problems Began on Left Wing By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Filed at 6:56 p.m. ET

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- Investigators trying to figure out what destroyed space shuttle Columbia immediately focused on the left wing and the possibility that its thermal tiles were damaged far more seriously than NASA realized by a piece of debris during liftoff.

Just a little over a minute into Columbia's launch Jan. 16, a chunk of insulating foam peeled away from the external fuel tank and smacked into the ship's left wing.

On Saturday, that same wing started exhibiting sensor failures and other problems 23 minutes before Columbia was scheduled to touch down. With just 16 minutes remaining before landing, the shuttle disintegrated over Texas.

Just a day earlier, on Friday, NASA's lead flight director, Leroy Cain, had declared the launch-day incident to be absolutely no reason for concern. An extensive engineering analysis had concluded that any damage to Columbia's thermal tiles would be minor.

``As we look at that now in hindsight ... we can't discount that there might be a connection,'' shuttle manager Ron Dittemore said on Saturday, hours after the tragedy. ``But we have to caution you and ourselves that we can't rush to judgment on it because there are a lot of things in this business that look like the smoking gun but turn out not even to be close.''

The shuttle has more than 20,000 thermal tiles to protect it from the extreme heat of re-entry into the atmosphere. The black, white or gray tiles are made of a carbon composite or silica-glass fibers and are attached to the shuttle with silicone adhesive.

If a spaceship has loose, damaged or missing tiles, that can change the aerodynamics of the ship and warp or melt the underlying aluminum airframe, causing nearby tiles to peel off in a chain reaction.

If the tiles start stripping off in large numbers or in crucial spots, a spacecraft can overheat, break up and plunge to Earth in a shower of hot metal, much like Russia's Mir space station did in 2001.

Dittemore said that the disaster could have been caused instead by a structural failure of some sort. He did not elaborate.

As for other possibilities, however, NASA said that until the problems with the wing were noticed, everything else appeared to be performing fine.

NASA officials said, for example, that the shuttle was in the proper position when it re-entered the atmosphere on autopilot. Re-entry at too steep an angle can cause a spaceship to burn up.

Law enforcement authorities said was no indication of terrorism; at an altitude of 39 miles, the shuttle was out of range of any surface-to-air missile, one senior government official said.

If the liftoff damage was to blame, the shuttle and its crew of seven may well have been doomed from the very start of the mission.

Dittemore said there was nothing that the astronauts could have done in orbit to fix damaged thermal tiles and nothing that flight controllers could have done to safely bring home a severely scarred shuttle, given the extreme temperatures of re-entry.

The shuttle broke apart while being exposed to the peak temperature of 3,000 degrees on the leading edge of the wings, while traveling at 12,500 mph, or 18 times the speed of sound.

A California Institute of Technology astronomer Anthony Beasley, reported seeing a trail of fiery debris behind the shuttle over California, with one piece clearly backing away and giving off its own light before slowly fading and falling. Dittemore was unaware of the sighting and did not want to speculate on it.

If thermal tiles were being ripped off the wing, that would have created drag and the shuttle would have started tilting from the ideal angle of attack. That could have caused the ship to overheat and disintegrate.

Dittemore said that even if the astronauts had gone out on an emergency spacewalk, there was no way a spacewalker could have safely checked under the wings, which bear the brunt of heat re-entry and have reinforced protection.

Even if they did find damage, there was nothing the crew could have done to fix it, he said.

``There's nothing that we can do about tile damage once we get to orbit,'' Dittemore said. ``We can't minimize the heating to the point that it would somehow not require a tile. So once you get to orbit, you're there and you have your tile insulation and that's all you have for protection on the way home from the extreme thermal heating during re-entry.''

The shuttle was not equipped with its 50-foot robot arm because it was not needed during this laboratory research mission, and so the astronauts did not have the option of using the arm's cameras to get a look at the damage.

NASA did not request help in trying to observe the damaged area with ground telescopes or satellites, in part because it did not believe the pictures would be useful, Dittemore.

Long-distance pictures did not help flight controllers when they wanted to see the tail of space shuttle Discovery during John Glenn's flight in 1998; the door for the drag-chute compartment had fallen off seconds after liftoff.

It was the second time in just four months that a piece of fuel-tank foam came off during a shuttle liftoff. In October, Atlantis lost a piece of foam that ended up striking the aft skirt of one of its solid-fuel booster rockets. At the time, the damage was thought to be superficial.

Dittemore said this second occurrence ``is certainly a signal to our team that something has changed.''


TOPICS: Front Page News; Government; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: columbiatragedy; feb12003; nasa; spaceshuttle; sts107
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1 posted on 02/01/2003 4:25:45 PM PST by Sub-Driver
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To: Sub-Driver
Sounds like they were doomed from Day 1.
2 posted on 02/01/2003 4:26:28 PM PST by Howlin
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To: Sub-Driver
<grim-humor>Left wings are constant sources of trouble </grim-humor>
3 posted on 02/01/2003 4:32:04 PM PST by HiTech RedNeck
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To: Sub-Driver
Was there any other craft that could have been sent out there to pick up the astronauts, if they knew this thing was going to have problems landing?
4 posted on 02/01/2003 4:34:13 PM PST by HiTech RedNeck
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To: Sub-Driver
The current occupants of the ISS could have eyeballed the wing as Columbia flew in formation close to the station.

Future missions (if ever continued) should include tile repair kits.

Autos have been equipped with spare tires for nearly a century.

5 posted on 02/01/2003 4:36:49 PM PST by CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
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To: Howlin
But if they had determined that there was a problem, couldn't they have had a couple more shuttle flights to bring home those people? In hind sight it might have been safer. sigh. But then the rush to prepare flights might have caused a problem for the new crews to.
6 posted on 02/01/2003 4:36:51 PM PST by tickles
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To: HiTech RedNeck
Aristeides at least 8 hours ago, reported there was a problem with the tire pressure on the left wing landing gear (which was the wing that received a hit on launch)
7 posted on 02/01/2003 4:37:25 PM PST by OReilly
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To: tickles
I don't know enough about it to even offer a suggestion about that; that would make sense to me though -- if they had thought it was bad enough.
8 posted on 02/01/2003 4:38:02 PM PST by Howlin
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Comment #9 Removed by Moderator

To: CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
I read somewhere that Columbia was not capable of flying high enough to dock with the ISS due to some kind of technological impediment.
10 posted on 02/01/2003 4:39:38 PM PST by Alberta's Child
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To: Howlin
"If a spaceship has loose, damaged or missing tiles, that can change the aerodynamics of the ship and warp or melt the underlying aluminum airframe, causing nearby tiles to peel off in a chain reaction. If the tiles start stripping off in large numbers or in crucial spots, a spacecraft can overheat, break up and plunge to Earth in a shower of hot metal, much like Russia's Mir space station did in 2001."

Looks to be the sad explanation.

11 posted on 02/01/2003 4:40:01 PM PST by BenLurkin
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To: Sub-Driver
FWIW, supposedly none of the things monitored by these sensors would have affected flight worthiness. While whatever happened may indeed have started on the left wing, I don't think the men I saw at the press conference were willing to draw the same conclusion the Times seems to be drawing. Something happened on the left side of the shuttle. Whether it had anything to do with the break-up or not, I don't think they know yet.
12 posted on 02/01/2003 4:41:33 PM PST by mewzilla
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To: CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
I read in an earlier post that the repairing of the tiles in space was impossible due to the cold.
13 posted on 02/01/2003 4:43:02 PM PST by EggsAckley (Time flies like an arrow.......but fruit flies like bananas)
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To: HiTech RedNeck
This is probably a dumb question, but, if on reaching orbit they discovered that they could not return safely because of damage to the space craft, could they have manuvered to the space station and wait for help?
14 posted on 02/01/2003 4:43:06 PM PST by EastIdaho
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To: CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
"Future missions (if ever continued) should include tile repair kits."

The shuttle filghts used to have tile repair kits, for some reason the practice was discontinued.

15 posted on 02/01/2003 4:43:07 PM PST by SSN558
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To: CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
Future missions (if ever continued) should include tile repair kits. Autos have been equipped with spare tires for nearly a century. But autos have four identical tires. All the tiles are different. Though epoxies will cure in vacuum, and were used as ablation shields in the early Mercury and Gemini programs, so, Yes, they could make "Blowout" kits. But someone would have to go outside to use it.

Not me, I hate heights.

16 posted on 02/01/2003 4:43:17 PM PST by Gorzaloon
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To: tickles
There was no docking ring on board (if I heard correctly). No room. And not enough space suits, either. I don't know if NASA had a contingency plan for something like this. I would hope they had one.
17 posted on 02/01/2003 4:43:55 PM PST by mewzilla
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To: EggsAckley
Well, a commentator on ABCNews tonight said the first shuttle missions did indeed go up with tile repair kits until they stopped requiring them. If repairs were impossible, makes one wonder why they sent up those kits in the first place.
18 posted on 02/01/2003 4:45:40 PM PST by mewzilla
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To: OReilly
It wasn't the tire pressure, but the compartment where the tires are located. The heat sensor went off, which could mean the missing tiles allowed heat to get into the interior areas.
19 posted on 02/01/2003 4:46:43 PM PST by Republic of Texas (Sarcasm detectors on sale now in the lobby)
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To: HiTech RedNeck
<grim-humor>Left wings are constant sources of trouble </grim-humor>

I, also, have a Wry sense of humor
At times like this, It can come in handy
Preserves Sanity, ya know

20 posted on 02/01/2003 4:46:57 PM PST by Fiddlstix
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To: Alberta's Child
It was too heavy to dock with the ISS. They were afraid it might damage it.
21 posted on 02/01/2003 4:47:47 PM PST by Republic of Texas (Sarcasm detectors on sale now in the lobby)
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To: Alberta's Child
Too heavy. In fact this was the heaviest reentry ever due to space hab. Heavier it is the more heat to slow it down.

Main wreckage is probably near Ft Polk, LA. Aircraft shutout there.
22 posted on 02/01/2003 4:50:37 PM PST by John Jamieson
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To: Republic of Texas
It wasn't the tire pressure, but the compartment where the tires are located. The heat sensor went off, which could mean the missing tiles allowed heat to get into the interior areas.

I disagree... The "off scale low" does not mean low pressure. It could, just as easily, have meant no reading... cause by a off scale high reading that was not temetered.

23 posted on 02/01/2003 4:50:43 PM PST by OReilly
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To: Gorzaloon
Not me, I hate heights.

'sok, at that distance it's not up - it's out...

24 posted on 02/01/2003 4:51:44 PM PST by null and void
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To: Republic of Texas
Too heavy to reach ISS.
25 posted on 02/01/2003 4:51:46 PM PST by John Jamieson
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To: Republic of Texas
It was my understanding the sensors did not 'go off' indicating excessive heating, they went 'off-line' indicating loss of connectivity.
26 posted on 02/01/2003 4:53:46 PM PST by Trust but Verify
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To: BenLurkin
like a zipper effect...........BTW, they usually do NOT examine the craft during spacewalks, they work out of the bay......
27 posted on 02/01/2003 4:54:01 PM PST by Sub-Driver
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To: Howlin
How sad if true.
28 posted on 02/01/2003 4:54:29 PM PST by bribriagain
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To: Sub-Driver
If true than every mission should include a spacewalk/inspection. IIRC this mission did not! Same way you take a walk around your car, take a look at tires, check the belts& oil, before a long trip.
29 posted on 02/01/2003 4:55:43 PM PST by dennisw (http://www.littlegreenfootballs.com/weblog/weblog.php <AND> http://rantburg.com)
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To: Alberta's Child
I read somewhere that Columbia was not capable of flying high enough to dock with the ISS due to some kind of technological impediment.

Where do you think it was for the past 16 days?

30 posted on 02/01/2003 4:55:58 PM PST by CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
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To: Sub-Driver
Investigators trying to figure out what destroyed space shuttle Columbia immediately focused on the left wing and the possibility that its thermal tiles were damaged far more seriously than NASA realized by a piece of debris during liftoff.
Just a little over a minute into Columbia's launch Jan. 16, a chunk of insulating foam peeled away from the external fuel tank and smacked into the ship's left wing.

Question: Why is it that the Times publishes articles wherein the information given does not align with the title given? The title of this article presents as fact that Columbia's problem was the foam debris that hit the left wing. Nowhere in the article is that "fact" substantiated.
31 posted on 02/01/2003 4:56:59 PM PST by Clara Lou
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To: Sub-Driver
Info on STS 107 from SpaceRef.com

STS-107 Launch of Space Shuttle Columbia for Spacehab NASA, SPACEHAB, and members of the STARS Academy have been preparing for the STS-107 mission for over two years. Scheduled for launch on July 19, 2002, this research mission of sixteen days is sure to be an exciting event. With the debut of SPACEHAB’s Research Double Module on this flight, over 100 experiments are expected to take place onboard the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia. The flight inclination for this mission is 39 degrees and the flight altitude is 150 nautical miles. This mission will be launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida from launch pad 39B. Seven talented astronauts will be flying this critical research mission. They include Mission Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William "Willie" McCool, Payload Commander Michael Anderson, Mission Specialist 1 Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist 2 David Brown, Mission Specialist 3 Laurel Clark, and Payload Specialist 1 Ilan Ramon. For the STARS Academy locker, Anderson, Chawla, and Ramon are the assigned crew. As the 111th shuttle mission and Columbia’s 28th flight, this shuttle just celebrated the 20th anniversary of its maiden voyage. Columbia returned to service, fresh from a year and a half of maintenance and upgrades that have made it better than ever. More than 100 modifications and improvements have been made to make Columbia ready for flight on STS-107. Highlights include a “glass cockpit” with nine full-color, flat-panel displays, reduced power needs, old wire removal, and a user-friendly interface.

Columbia's launch for July was scrubbed:****

June 24, 2002 Ed Campion Headquarters, Washington (Phone: 202/358-1694) James Hartsfield Johnson Space Center, Houston (Phone: 281/483-5111) Bruce Buckingham Kennedy Space Center, Fla. (Phone: 321/867-2468) Release: #H02-117 NASA MANAGERS DELAY STS-107 LAUNCH NASA managers today temporarily suspended launch preparations for Space Shuttle Columbia until they have a better understanding of several small cracks found in metal liners used to direct the flow inside main propulsion-system propellant lines on other orbiters in the fleet. Columbia's launch on STS-107, previously planned for July 19, will be delayed a few weeks to allow inspections of its flow liners as part of an intensive analysis that is under way. Recent inspections of Space Shuttle Atlantis and Space Shuttle Discovery found cracks, measuring one-tenth to three-tenths of an inch, in one flow liner on each of those vehicles. Some of the cracks were not identifiable using standard visual inspections and were only discovered using more intensive inspection techniques. "These cracks may pose a safety concern and we have teams at work investigating all aspects of the situation," said Space Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore. "This is a very complex issue and it is early in the analysis. Right now there are more questions than answers. Our immediate interests are to inspect the hardware to identify cracks that exist, understand what has caused them and quantify the risk. I am confident the team will fully resolve this issue, but it may take some time. Until we have a better understanding, we will not move forward with the launch of STS-107." The impact of the investigation on other upcoming space shuttle launches has not been determined.

32 posted on 02/01/2003 4:57:14 PM PST by Light Speed
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To: Trust but Verify
Anything can fail along the signal path, including something called multiplexers and/or signal transmitters. Or whatever cabling was connecting this stuff to the flight computers. We didn't hear about any temp spikes being noted beforehand, at least not yet.
33 posted on 02/01/2003 4:58:04 PM PST by mewzilla
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To: Clara Lou
The title of this article presents as fact that Columbia's problem was the foam debris that hit the left wing.

No it doesn't.

34 posted on 02/01/2003 4:58:13 PM PST by The Great Satan (Revenge, Terror and Extortion: A Guide for the Perplexed)
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To: OReilly
I did not mean to sound like an expert, that is what I heard described on the radio today. I'm sure there are people here with more knowledge of these things than I. Either way, that was the area they'd noticed before all the sensors on the left side went out.
35 posted on 02/01/2003 4:58:14 PM PST by Republic of Texas (Sarcasm detectors on sale now in the lobby)
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To: CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
Flying a space hab in the payload bay. Mini station that goes up and down. Down seems to have been the problem.
36 posted on 02/01/2003 4:58:17 PM PST by John Jamieson
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To: CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
It wasn't at the ISS..this was the first mission in a while that was not intended to dock at the space station. Just science experiments in the payload bay.
37 posted on 02/01/2003 4:59:02 PM PST by Preech1
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To: CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
It didn't dock with the ISS on this mission, and couldn't have if they'd wanted to. No docking ring on board.
38 posted on 02/01/2003 4:59:13 PM PST by mewzilla
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To: CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
Do you have any evidence that the Columbia had docked with the ISS while it was in orbit?

The ISS crew was scheduled to be rotated out during a mission later this month (maybe the Discovery?) -- None of the video feeds I've seen of this shuttle mission show any interaction between this crew and a member of the ISS crew.

39 posted on 02/01/2003 4:59:15 PM PST by Alberta's Child
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To: CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
I don't understand why any shuttle, ever, was allowed to go into space without some means of repairing damaged tiles having been developed.

It's time to re-engineer new shuttles.
40 posted on 02/01/2003 4:59:30 PM PST by SarahW
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To: Republic of Texas
NASA did say at first that some sensors showed high temps, then changed it to: all of them failed low as if the wires were cut.
41 posted on 02/01/2003 5:00:38 PM PST by John Jamieson
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To: EggsAckley
I read in an earlier post that the repairing of the tiles in space was impossible due to the cold.

Nothing is impossible!

Have you ever seen a lineman up a pole in a cocoon on a cold day?

There are ultrastrong adherents that can be prepared in a warm ready-box.

42 posted on 02/01/2003 5:00:57 PM PST by CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
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To: SarahW
Should they have carried spare parts for every possibility? Each tile is different and has a serial number.
43 posted on 02/01/2003 5:02:00 PM PST by John Jamieson
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To: dennisw
I'm sure that will NOW be SOP........(standard operating procedure, for those non military types)
44 posted on 02/01/2003 5:02:17 PM PST by Sub-Driver
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To: CROSSHIGHWAYMAN
Where do you think it was for the past 16 days?

Nowhere near the IIS.

45 posted on 02/01/2003 5:02:23 PM PST by adaven
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To: John Jamieson
I think that guy later said during the conference that he misspoke, and that what they noticed was the sudden loss of signal. No spike.
46 posted on 02/01/2003 5:03:07 PM PST by mewzilla
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To: John Jamieson
The early flights did indeed carry tile repair kits. If repairs were impossible, why bother?
47 posted on 02/01/2003 5:04:14 PM PST by mewzilla
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To: EggsAckley
Your tag is great!
48 posted on 02/01/2003 5:04:22 PM PST by bribriagain
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To: John Jamieson
When Challenger exploded, NASA said not to speculate on the cause prior to their investigation. Ironically, the investigation, which took years, confirmed the original speculation, the O-ring.

I think that may be the case here. So far, the signs point to the tiles. We'll see.

49 posted on 02/01/2003 5:04:26 PM PST by Republic of Texas (Sarcasm detectors on sale now in the lobby)
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To: Sub-Driver
"Dittemore said that even if the astronauts had gone out on an emergency spacewalk, there was no way a spacewalker could have safely checked under the wings, which bear the brunt of heat re-entry and have reinforced protection.

Even if they did find damage, there was nothing the crew could have done to fix it, he said.

``There's nothing that we can do about tile damage once we get to orbit,'' Dittemore said. ``We can't minimize the heating to the point that it would somehow not require a tile. So once you get to orbit, you're there and you have your tile insulation and that's all you have for protection on the way home from the extreme thermal heating during re-entry.''

The shuttle was not equipped with its 50-foot robot arm because it was not needed during this laboratory research mission, and so the astronauts did not have the option of using the arm's cameras to get a look at the damage.

NASA did not request help in trying to observe the damaged area with ground telescopes or satellites, in part because it did not believe the pictures would be useful, Dittemore.

Long-distance pictures did not help flight controllers when they wanted to see the tail of space shuttle Discovery during John Glenn's flight in 1998; the door for the drag-chute compartment had fallen off seconds after liftoff. "

I heard this part of the shuttle manager's answer to a question, and was chilled. He almost made it sound like they would send the crew to their deaths if they found the tiles damaged, so why bother looking at them.

If this played a part in the thinking, the shuttle program should be closed down permanently. That attitude is not what one would expect from the NASA "can do".

Either the people need to change that kind of thinking, or if it is valid, they need to provide solutions for this kind of problem.

It would seem a member of the crew could have been tethered and taken a look at the damage. If the call was made that it was unsafe, why not dock with the space station, and send down as many people as possible with the ISS rescue pod? Sure it leaves no failsafe for whoever is left behind, but it gives more chance for survival. Hopefully, those left of the ISS would have enough life support to last until another shuttle rescues them, or some other rockets are sent to take them home.

The ISS should have sufficient rescue pods for an entire shuttle crew, and the ISS crew.
50 posted on 02/01/2003 5:05:22 PM PST by TheDon
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