Columbia Accident Investigation Crawls Toward The Finish Line

By Keith Cowing
June 12, 2003
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Columbia Accident Investigation Crawls Toward The Finish Line

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) held its first sessions in Washington, DC today. What follows are highlight’s of some of today’s major themes.

Watch Out For Falling Bolts

The prevailing theory that the CAIB has been pursuing, one which emerged rather early on in their investigation, is that a piece of insulating foam broke off of the Columbia’s External Tank, struck the Shuttle’s left wing resulting in damage that lead to the entrance of white hot gases into the wing during reentry. The end result was the destruction of the vehicle as the left wing came apart.

Today, however, a new launch hazard emerged. Although some hint of a “bolt problem” had been circulating before, details had been lacking. This issue came to the CAIB’s attention through a novel route: information from outside the investigation.

According to a CAIB presentation by Maj. General John Barry, the issue concerns explosive bolts that are used to hold the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) to the overall Shuttle/External Tank “stack”. In order for the SRBs to be discarded after they have done their job, these bolts fire and break the mechanical connection. “Bolt catchers” are in place so as to catch bolt fragments and prevent them from entering the air stream around the ascending vehicle.

According to the CAIB, radar readings at 126 seconds after liftoff – just when the SRBs separate – show something moving away from the vehicle. According to Admiral Hal Gehman “at a time when there should not be debris leaving the vehicle – there was.”

While there is no firm proof that it could have been one of these bolts, the possibility cannot, at this time, be ruled out. As such, the CAIB is looking to do additional analysis. If the bolts in question were not a hazard on STS-107, there is always the chance that they could present a hazard on future Shuttle missions.

When asked if the bolt would have enough kinetic energy, should it have fallen away, to do damage to the Shuttle, Barry said “yes”. A trajectory analysis is still in work to see if there was any correlation between this radar data and where this bolt could have theoretically have gone – should it have fallen away from the SRB.

Repeated cautions were made by Gehman and Barry that there is no correlation between these radar readings and any bolt. Moreover, the CAIB members reaffirmed their preference for the foam damage scenario as a possible explanation for the damage to Columbia.

Looking at Budgets With One Eye Closed

Much of the day’s focus was on NASA’s budget – historical trends, the process whereby budgets are formulated, and the abuses that are rampant in the process. Allen Li from the General Accounting Office and Marcia Smith from the Congressional Research Service reiterated observations they have made multiple times over the years before Congress with regard to NASA’s budget and how Congress alters that budget during the appropriations process.

CAIB Member John Logsdon later observed how NASA’s spending power has seen little growth for well over a decade – while, at the same time, NASA did not cancel any of its existing, major programs.

As the CAIB looks back at the causes that led up to the Columbia accident, one of its subgroups, headed by Logsdon is looking at these budget issues. At least twice during today’s session Logsdon said that the CAIB did not have access to the “pass back” materials covering NASA’s budget. He was referring to the correspondence that occurs between NASA and OMB during the process of each fiscal year’s budget preparation. Some things are thrown out, others are thrown in. Then the budget goes to Congress where they have their chance to tweak it further.

I asked Logsdon how he could possibly formulate a complete picture of how NASA’s budgets were developed if he did not have access to such materials. Specifically, I asked him if he had asked for these NASA/OMB materials for the years during which both Sean O’Keefe and Dan Goldin served as NASA’s Administrator. Logsdon did not respond to my inquiry about how one could develop an overall picture without the pass back materials, but he did respond to the issue of requesting them.

Logsdon said that the CAIB had asked NASA for access to such materials but that “the discussion turned into one covering executive privilege”. Since the materials Logsdon requested access to are communications between the White House (OMB) and an agency, they are covered by ‘executive privilege’. “We are respecting that” Logsdon said. In other words the CAIB has no access at all to this crucial component of NASA’s budget formulation history .

A few minutes later, in response to another reporter’s question, Logsdon touched on budgets again. The question had to do with Congressional earmarks, and comments Sen. John McCain made in a recent Senate hearing about their effect on NASA’s ability to manage its programs.

“Are we going to list earmarks as ‘earmarks’ ?” Logsdon asked. “No. Are we going to list which Congressional directives moved money around? Yes. The focus is on the Shuttle budget – not on the overall NASA budget.” Logsdon added that the entire STS-107 was itself an earmark. Earlier in the day Marcia Smith noted that Congress had pushed NASA to do such a mission so as to allow science to be done while the International Space Station was still under construction. NASA fought the recommendation for several years but eventually relented. A second such research mission as also in the works but was subsequently cancelled.

Given these comments by Logsdon, the CAIB has only a partial set of the tools required to fully understand how NASA’s budget came to be what it was – and how decisions were made vis-à-vis how issues relating to the Shuttle in particular were evaluated. Moreover, the CAIB is going to avoid categorizing some aspects of Congressional meddling (i.e. earmarks) while giving recognition to others (i.e. “Congressional directives”). Both sorts of Congressional alteration in NASA’s budget affect how the agency operates, and it is curious as to why one would be examined while others are not.

Lastly, the CAIB’s focus only on the Shuttle budget without an equal focus on NASA’s overall budget, is curious given how the Shuttle budget, by virtue of its sheer size, often serves to crowd out, or at least certainly predominate over all of the other things NASA does. This is especially relevant in the constrained budgetary environment Logsdon et al described today.

Less Money – Fewer People

Along with budget issues comes the main thing that the budget goes for: people. According to Allen Li “NASA, like many federal agencies, is facing substantial challenges in attracting and retaining a highly skilled workforce, thus putting the agency’s missions at risk.” While NASA has had problems with monitoring contracts and achieving desirable levels of performance in the past, Li said that improvements are being made.

Many are quick to jump to conclusions about budget cuts i.e. that cutting a budget might have resulted in either cutting back on safety personnel or not hiring enough safety people and that this somehow led to the Columbia accident. Marcia Smith was quick to caution those that would jump to such conclusions. The logic path between fewer safety people and less oversight is certainly clear here – but no one has shown conclusively (at least not yet) that a specific cut in one part of NASA’s budget led to a safety shortfall at some point in the preparation and conduct of the STS-107.

Having A Feynman moment

One of the more memorable moments in the Challenger Commission investigation was when Nobel Laureate Physicist, and Commission Member, Richard Feynman took some of the material used in the SRBs infamous O-rings and subjected it to cold temperatures in a glass of ice water. He placed a clamp on the material and showed that once chilled, the O-ring’s resiliency was compromised. It was eventually shown that this small demonstration was at the heart of the initial mechanical failure which lead to the cascade of events that led to the loss of Challenger.

Today, CAIB panelists and the press were treated to a presentation by Dr. Douglas Osheroff “an avowed foamologist” to borrow a term coined by Sean O’Keefe. Osheroff, himself a Nobel Laureate is also a former student of Feynman’s. Osheroff’s presentation (which had eerie echoes of Feynman’s with a dash of ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’) started with the question “it is believed that foam shed from the External Tank led to the break up of Columbia upon reentry. The widely accepted belief is that the foam was ejected from the bipod ramp by liquid cryogens that expanded due to aero heating . But, what do we really know about how foam reacts to pressure and temperature?”

In a section called “Kitchen Science” Osheroff described how he and some grad students did some experiments in a kitchen using household items including ink from a Mont Blanc pen. Their initial results suggested that pressure alone could not explain foam shedding. The objective was to try and understand the phenomena associated with foam delamination so as “to constrain the models we must develop and test to understand and eliminate foam shedding form the external tank”. Osheroff closed by suggesting that NASA look into do such tests.

Have You Read the Report Yet?

Recent news stories – all feeding off of an initial scoop last week by the Orlando Sentinel, have gone into great detail about what the CAIB’s final report is purported to contain. The Sentinel’s article described only an outline – one which was later confirmed by CAIB members. Subsequent articles and extrapolations by reporters have given the impression that there is indeed a report already in existence. Despite CAIB protestations that the writing has just begun, a rather detailed Executive Summary of nearly 100 pages is already in existence.

While the CAIB is clearly winding down this public aspect of its activities and moving into the report writing process. None the less fact finding continues. According to a presentation by Scott Hubbard, dditional impact tests will continue until the end of this month.

Inevitably, as the report does grow beyond its current fragmentary status into a full blown draft portions are certain to start making their way into the public eye. Given the way information has surfaced from the CAIB as well as NASA – most of it in a rather open manner, I will predict that there will be little or no surprise as to what the CAIB finds – or recommends by the time the final printed version is handed out at a press conference.

Moreover, the expected delivery date is certain to allow for a overall muted response to whatever it contains. The CAIB is now working to complete their task – on or around 24 July 2003 – just in time to catch members of Congress before they are supposed to depart on a planned recess. Given this specific delivery date, it is likely that any organized Congressional insight (hearings) into the report will not emerge until September.

End note

Richard Feynman wrote his own observations on the overall Challeneger investigation. While these two Shuttle accidents are separated not only in time, but also to a great extent in their respective root causes, one section of Feynman’s comments bears repeating as the Columbia Investigation steers towards its report writing:

“Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

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