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Shuttle Accident Investigators Recommend Better Launch Pictures - 2003-07-01

U.S. space shuttle accident investigators are calling on the space agency NASA to take better pictures of shuttles during future launches. They say they would like to have had better images of the incident they believe doomed the shuttle Columbia during its liftoff in January.

The Columbia investigation board says it would like to have had more films of the shuttle's liftoff and higher quality ones. That was when hard insulating foam peeled off the orbiter's external fuel tank and crashed into its left wing. They say two long-range ground cameras provided useful films, but they wish they had a view from at least a third angle.

The investigators have concluded that the foam strike led to Columbia's disintegration and death of its seven astronauts upon re-entry on February 1. After a five-month probe, they believe the foam split the wing's front edge, allowing extremely hot atmospheric gases to penetrate and melt the wing.

But the board says the lack of high-resolution, high-speed cameras hampered its evaluation of the impact. The available imagery does not show exactly where the foam hit the wing and certainly is not sharp enough to reveal any damage.

In a statement, the investigators say the current long-range cameras at the Kennedy Space Center launch site are inadequate to provide the best engineering data during shuttle ascent. They complain that the cameras are obsolete and their views obscured by civilian buildings near the launch site.

The panel suggests that NASA consider using ships or aircraft to provide additional views of a shuttle launch.

This is the Columbia accident panel's fourth preliminary recommendation on ways to improve shuttle safety. It is preparing to issue its full report on its disaster probe and additional recommendations late this month. It has already suggested that NASA be more thorough in its pre-flight inspections, use spy satellites to inspect for damage during flights, have astronauts do the same thing while in orbit, and find a way for them to make emergency repairs.

NASA engineers had asked shuttle managers to seek spy satellite coverage of Columbia after they realized the foam had hit the wing. NASA even had a prior agreement with the U.S. government's aerial reconnaissance agency to do so when it requested. But shuttle managers rejected the engineers' request in the belief that the foam could not have damaged the wing.