Press Release

Columbia Water Damage Probed, Aviation Week Reports

By SpaceRef Editor
March 24, 2003
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NEW YORK, NY — Aviation Week & Space Technology reports exclusively in its March 24 issue that the Columbia Accident Board is investigating whether water damage to the shuttle’s wing or thermal protection tiles could have played a role in the Feb. 1 accident that killed seven astronauts.

Board member Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, told AW&ST that the board will investigate reports from NASA managers that latent effects from rain water could possibly have degraded a left wing “carrier panel” that bridges the bottom half of the wing’s reinforced carbon leading edge with regular thermal protection tiles. The carrier panel also holds smaller, but equally critical thermal tiles.

Deal said the board is following up on internal NASA reports that Columbia was heavily rained on when parked on its landing gear before being moved inside Boeing’s Palmdale, Calif. facility for overhaul in 1999. All shuttle orbiters are routinely rained on when sitting vertically on the launch pad, but almost never when parked horizontally on their wheels, which angles the wing somewhat downward.

The Accident Board will investigate whether this could have allowed rain water to pool in the carrier panels, possibly making them more susceptible to fracture and separation after being struck by debris from the shuttle’s external tank during launch, Brig. Gen. Deal told AW&ST.

The magazine also reports in its March 24 issue that NASA’s General Counsel, the space agency’s top legal official, recently admonished NASA managers not to openly discuss secret U. S. Defense Dept. imaging capabilities that could have been used to photograph the orbiter in space to search for damage in the days before the disastrous reentry. The General Counsel issued the warning during a mid March meeting of NASA Headquarters managers to discuss the accident.

And in another military tie with the accident, AW&ST reports that an Air Force “Defense Support Program” (DSP) missile warning satellite, parked 22,000 mi. above the Pacific Ocean, first detected an abnormal thermal event on the exterior of the shuttle when the vehicle was still 700 mi. west of California just 26 sec. after the shuttle began to experience peak heating during reentry.

The information is important because it shows reentry heating had an immediate abnormal effect, compared with Columbia’s normal reentry thermal characteristics. NASA, however, has also discouraged open discussion of that military satellite data.

The infrared telescope on the DSP satellite detected the abnormal heating a full minute before sensors near the shuttle’s landing gear began to transmit data about heat penetration of the wing. The DSP satellite is the same type being used to watch for the launch of Iraqi ballistic missiles that could be directed against the U. S. and its allies during the war with Iraq.

Text of the article is available at

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SpaceRef staff editor.