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NASA Was Unconcerned About Debris Hitting Shuttle, Documents Disclose


Newly-released documents reaffirm that U.S. space agency officials placed little importance on a flight incident that ultimately doomed the shuttle Columbia. NASA has issued recordings and transcripts of meetings that mission managers held during Columbia's flight. The documents show how unconcerned the officials were about the potential for catastrophic damage caused by hard insulating foam that smashed into Columbia's wing during liftoff.

After a five month probe by outside investigators, we now know that the foam that flew off of Columbia's external fuel tank after launch punched a big hole in the left wing. We also know that hot atmospheric gases rushed through that hole during Columbia's searing re-entry in February and melted the wing. The orbiter disintegrated minutes later over Texas and all seven crewmembers perished.

The foam strike was first noticed by engineers reviewing films of the launch on the second day of the mission. But the recordings and transcripts show that those controlling the flight did not discuss it among themselves until the sixth day of the flight.

At that time, the NASA flight director running the meeting, Linda Ham, noted that a similar foam strike had occurred on a previous shuttle mission that had returned safely. She said the properties and density of the material would not have resulted in damage to the shuttle.

"Really, I don't think there is much we can do, so, you know, it's not really a factor during the flight because there isn't much we can do about it," she said.

Three days later, a shuttle official who oversees flight engineering issues, Don McCormack, told the group that technicians who analyzed films of the foam strike did not believe it threatened Columbia's safety.

"They do show there's obviously potential for significant tile damage here," said Mr. McCormack, "but they do not indicate, the thermal analysis does not indicate, that there is a potential for a burn through. I mean, there could be localized heating damage."

Another shuttle official said he assured the Columbia astronauts that the team on the ground had no concerns about the foam impact to the wing.

Five days before the crew died, Mr. McCormack and Ms. Ham summed up the issue by saying it was probably only something that ground repair crews might have to deal with after landing. That was the last discussion of it by assembled shuttle officials.

But as the investigation has shown, lower level engineers were struggling to persuade shuttle managers to take the foam strike more seriously. Their e-mail requests for spy satellite photos of Columbia's wing were rejected.

None of the information in the recordings and transcripts is new. But they reveal in a more direct and personal way than ever the mistaken thinking about the foam event that the accident investigators call a management failing. The investigators are expected to issue a report next month, saying management decisions are as much to blame for Columbia's demise as is the foam strike itself.

In the meantime, NASA has rearranged its shuttle management following the disaster, sending Ms. Ham and several others on to different assignments.