Status Report

Jonathan’s Space Report No. 493 2003 Feb 8

By SpaceRef Editor
February 8, 2003
Filed under ,


Orbiter OV-102 Columbia was lost 15 minutes before its scheduled landing
on Feb 1 at the end of the STS-107 microgravity mission. The seven
astronauts were killed when the left wing failed and the spaceship broke
apart. Debris has been found over a wide area centered in east Texas
near the Palestine, Texas region (site of NASA’s balloon launch
facility), and stretching from Fort Worth eastward into Louisiana.

Columbia was in a 272 x 289 km x 39.0 deg orbit when it fired the OMS
engines for deorbit at 1315 UTC for 2min 38s. This dropped the orbit to
around 1 x 275 km x 39.0 deg. At 1344 UTC Columbia reached NASA’s
nominal entry interface at an altitude of 122 km and began the
transition from a spaceship to an aircraft. The descent continued with
the first hypersonic slalom turn, as the Orbiter crossed the California
coast. Up to this point, as Columbia approached maximum reentry
heating, everything appeared well.

Multiple on-board sensors in the area of the left wing stopped working
or showed temperature rises beginning at 1352 UTC, as ground-based
observers began to see material apparently breaking off from the fiery
trail of the vehicle. Near to 1400 UTC left wing drag increased,
causing rapid changes in the required trim. At this point the vehicle
appears to have broken into multiple large pieces, either due to
structural and thermal failure or to loss of attitude (which I
understand would induce structural failure within about a second at this
point in the flight). Loss of good signal was at 60 km altitude at Mach
18.3, at 1359:22 UTC (according to early reports), a time 15d22h20m22s
into the mission. A further 32s of partial telemetry may indicate that
the vehicle did not break up until 1359:54 UTC; these times are likely
to be revised, and I haven’t seen any accurate times on the many amateur
videos taken of the breakup. An Aviation Week report claims USAF
imagery from the ground showed structural damage to the leading edge of
the left wing, indicating the thermal protection system in the wing
glove area may have failed. The photo, shown at the Feb 7 briefing,
shows an irregular leading edge on the left wing and a cleaner leading
edge on the right wing, but it’s not clear to me whether that is just an
artifact of pixelization noise as opposed to really showing true
features on the Shuttle. At this point I remain unconvinced the photo
tells us much. One possibility is that the impact of a 1 kg, 0.6m piece
of external tank foam 80s into launch may have caused damage, although
program officials still claim this is unlikely. I expect a clearer
picture of what went wrong will emerge over the next one to two months.
It will take longer to know what the impact is for the human spaceflight
program as a whole.

Condolences to all members of the Shuttle team on the loss of the seven
astronauts of the STS-107 crew. All of us with any connection to the
space program remain in shock. And kudos to Ron Dittemore, Shuttle
Program Manager, for an exceptional performance at the press briefings;
despite obvious stress he gave with great dignity honest, clear and
detailed assessments of what is currently known and avoided the
triteness and euphemism (e.g. “contingency”) of much of the rest of
NASA’s coverage. The fact that the press sometimes misreported what he
said is too bad, but I think he helped the world understand what an
engineering accident investigation is like, and NASA can be proud that
it has representatives like him.

One important note: the STS-107 press kit consistently and erroneously
refers to the mission as carrying the SLWT (super light weight tank)
version of the External Tank. This is a significant error; STS-107’s
External Tank, ET-93, was actually the older LWT (light weight tank),
used for only the second time since 1998.

For the record, other fatal accidents during the course of a spaceflight:

  • 1967 Vladimir Komarov, Soyuz-1 crash landing
  • 1967 Mike Adams, X-15-3 reentry control loss
  • 1971 Georgiy Dobrovol’skiy, Vadislav Volkov, Viktor Patsaev, Soyuz-11 reentry depressurization
  • 1986 Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe,Challenger launch accident.

It’s important to remember that there have also been a large number of
very close shaves, including launch aborts, on-board fires and
collisions, and a variety of reentry problems. Human spaceflight is a
dangerous business and is likely to remain so for the immediate future.

The Shuttle program is now grounded indefinitely. This also impacts the
International Space Station program and the already-delayed Hubble
Space Telescope servicing mission (which would have been flown by Columbia).
There are three remaining orbiters (Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour) and
it would not be practical to build a replacement; some acceleration of
efforts to design a successor vehicle seems likely.

Shuttle and Station

Aboard the Space Station, Bowersox and Pettit made a spacewalk from the
Quest airlock on Jan 15. The airlock reached vacuum at about 1214 UTC,
with hatch open after some difficulties at 1246 UTC and suit battery
power at 1250 UTC. The astronauts deployed the central thermal radiator
on the P1 truss and moved a tool box to the CETA cart. The hatch was
closed around 1938 UTC with repress at 1941 UTC, for a duration of 7h27m
(depress/repress), 6h52m (hatch open/close) or 6h51m (NASA rule).

Columbia was launched on mission STS-107 on Jan 16 at 1539 UTC. At 1547
UTC it reached a 78 x 272 km orbit and the external tank separated. At
1620 UTC the OMS-2 burn raised the orbit to 270 x 283 km.
Columbia carried out its microgravity research mission for two weeks.

Progress M-47 was launched on Feb 2 and docked with the rear port of the
Station’s Zvezda module at 1449 UTC on Feb 4, delivering enough supplies
to keep the Station crew aboard until June if need be.

Recent Launches


NASA’s SORCE satellite was launched by a Pegasus XL from Cape Canaveral on
Jan 29. SORCE carries two main instruments, TSIM (the Total Solar
Irradiance Monitor) and SOLSTICE (Solar-Stellar Intercomparison
Experiment), to study the total solar output for climate studies. It is
operated by the University of Colorado/Boulder. The L-1011 carrier plane
took off from the Cape Canaveral Skid Strip runway at 1917 UTC on Jan
25. Drop over the Atlantic at 2013 UTC was followed by successful burn
of all three Pegasus XL stages and orbit insertion at 2022 UTC into a
610 x 649 km x 40.0 deg orbit. The satellite was built by Orbital Sciences
and uses the LeoStar-2 bus; its mass is 290 kg.

Navstar GPS vehicle SVN 56 was launched from Cape Canaveral on Jan 29.
The Boeing Delta 7925 entered a 174 x 200 km x 36.9 deg orbit at 1816
UTC; the second stage then restarted to enter a 187 x 1157 km x 37.2 deg
orbit and separated from the Star 48 third stage which put the GPS
satellite in a 182 x 20282 km x 39.0 deg transfer orbit. The second
stage then restarted at least twice more to enter a 703 x 806 km x 39.6
deg orbit. At around 1000 UTC on Jan 30, the Air Force Research Lab’s
XSS-10 experimental inspector satellite separated from the second stage
and made a series of 35-meter re-approaches to the stage, using a
hydrazine propulsion system for stationkeeping and an experimental
camera to image the stage. Meanwhile, GPS SVN 56 fired its apogee motor
to circularize and raise inclination, entering a 20155 x 20344 km x
55.0 deg orbit. It will replace SVN 22 in the navigation constellation.

The first Orbital Sciences Corp. Taurus Lite rocket was launched on Feb
6 from Vandenberg. The Taurus Lite made a suborbital flight with an
apogee of 1800 km; it is basically a stretched Pegasus without wings,
the first stage being an Orion 50SXLG motor derived from the Pegasus XL
first stage and Taurus second stage. Taurus Lite, also known as the
Orbital Boost Vehicle (OBV) is currently planned for use as a missile
defense interceptor.



Shenzhou 4 was of course launched from Jiuquan, not Taiyuan.

ICESAT has a mass of 959 kg full and 882 kg dry; the 300 kg quoted earlier was for the
science instrument alone.

Spacewarn Bulletin reports the mass of the Trailblazer Dummy satellite is 420 kg.

Table of Recent Launches


Date UT       Name            Launch Vehicle  Site            Mission    INTL.

Dec  2 2205   MEPSI             -              Endeavour, LEO   Technology   52B
Dec  5 0242   TDRS 10           Atlas IIA      Canaveral SLC36  Comms        55A      
Dec 11 2221   Stentor    )      Ariane 5ECA    Kourou ELA3      Comms        F03
              Hot Bird 7 )                                      Comms        F03
Dec 14 0131   Midori 2   )      H2A-202        Tanegashima      Rem.Sensing  56A
              WEOS       )                                      Rem.Sensing  56C
              FedSat     )                                      Technology   56B
              MuLabSat   )                                      Technology   56D
Dec 17 2304   NSS 6             Ariane 44L     Kourou ELA2      Comms        57A
Dec 20 1700   Trailblazer )     Dnepr          Baykonur LC109   Dummy        58E
              Latinsat A  )                                     Comms        58H
              Latinsat B  )                                     Comms        58B
              Saudisat 1C )                                     Comms        58C
              Unisat-2    )                                     Technology   58D
              Rubin-2     )                                     Technology   58A
Dec 24 1220   Kosmos-2393       Molniya-M      Plesetsk LC16/2  Early warn   59A
Dec 25 0737   Kosmos-2394 )     Proton-K/DM-2  Baykonur LC81/23 Navigation   60A
              Kosmos-2395 )                                                  60B
              Kosmos-2396 )                                                  60C
Dec 29 1640   Shenzhou 4        Chang Zheng 2F  Jiuquan          Spaceship   61A
Dec 29 2316   Nimiq 2           Proton-M/Briz-M Baykonur LC81/24 Comms       62A
Jan  6 1419   Coriolis          Titan II        Vandenberg SLC4W Environment 01A
Jan 13 0045   ICESAT  )         Delta 7320-10   Vandenberg SLC2W Environment 02A
              CHIPSat )                                          Astronomy   02B
Jan 16 1539   Columbia )        Shuttle         Kennedy LC39A    Spaceship   03A
              Spacehab )                                         Lab
Jan 25 2013   SORCE             Pegasus XL      Canaveral RW30/12 Solar obs  04A
Jan 29 1806   GPS SVN 56 )      Delta 7925      Canaveral SLC17  Navigation  05A
              XSS-10     )                                       Technology  05B
Feb  2 1259   Progress M-47     Soyuz-U         Baykonur LC1     Cargo       06A

Current Shuttle Processing Status


Orbiters               Location   Mission    Launch Due   

OV-102 Columbia        Destroyed     STS-107  2003 Jan 16 Spacehab
OV-103 Discovery       OPF           Maintenance
OV-104 Atlantis        VAB           STS-114  Unknown     ISS ULF1
OV-105 Endeavour       OPF           STS-115  Unknown     ISS 12A
|  Jonathan McDowell                 |  phone : (617) 495-7176            |
|  Harvard-Smithsonian Center for    |                                    |

|   Astrophysics                     |                                    |
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SpaceRef staff editor.