"I imagine this is the last we will hear of this."
February 22, 2003 8:22 AM   Subscribe

"I imagine this is the last we will hear of this." Or not. NASA releases email between NASA engineers leading up to the Columbia disaster documenting significant concerns regarding damage done to the shuttle on takeoff. Engineers calculated the likelihood of a 7" x 30" gouge in the heat shields, but when they let management know of their concerns, they weren't taken seriously, were forced to work "at night" to do simulations, and found that requests for additional information were "treated like the plague."
posted by insomnia_lj (33 comments total)
Say the analysis WAS correct - what was NASA to do? It would appear management was trying to avoid a press conference where the announcement was 'these 7 people are gonna die' Management wanted to avoid bad news they could do next to nothing about.

The only plan I could guess at was to scramble another shuttle to assess damage, pick up the team and come back. I am unaware of the ability of another shuttle or a plan to do just this.

Later, pilots who knew they might die (As opposed to a you could die cuz this is dangerous) with a repair crew could attempt a repair and return the busted shuttle.

Reality - all we do know is the shuttle broke up on re-entry. We don't know exactly WHY. The machine could have hit something in space, hit with an electric discharge, hit a micro wormhole, or even been God's wrath.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:45 AM on February 22, 2003

Of course, they didn't want to hear from those negative nay-sayers.This is the part where large organizations fail, whether goverment bureaucracy or corporate midmanagement--office politics and wishful thinking are the sand in the gears. People who think a vast government bureaucracy is holding us back never worked for a branch office of a multi-national.

And,*cough* this is what is so frightening about the current adminstration's penchant for hiding everything from the public--in theory, its employers--we never see the buried skeletons and the creating of real buried skeletons becomes so much easier.
posted by y2karl at 9:50 AM on February 22, 2003

insomnia_lj--always tell us it's if it's a PDF. Not everybody wants one or can read one.

Well, I spelled government like I pronounce it.
posted by y2karl at 9:55 AM on February 22, 2003

nah, it's more than just large organizations (although they're the worst, perhaps) i think this reaction is typical of most human beings. just look at the last 5-10 years of the stock market... individuals chose the rose colored glasses (and apparently still do).
posted by muppetboy at 9:56 AM on February 22, 2003

Link for engineer e-mail here.
posted by y2karl at 9:59 AM on February 22, 2003

Well, I imagine if they'd known the could have taken a little trip over to the International Space Station and holed up there for a while until some damage estimation could be done.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:04 AM on February 22, 2003

New York Times and Washington Post on e-mail warning of catastropic damage caused by exploding tire in wheelwell.
posted by y2karl at 10:06 AM on February 22, 2003

Well, I imagine if they'd known the could have taken a little trip over to the International Space Station and holed up there for a while until some damage estimation could be done.

Ixnay--it was too heavy to ever get to that altitude.
posted by y2karl at 10:07 AM on February 22, 2003

I think you're missing the point; the accident, if it was caused by ice damage to the heat tiles, may have been avoidable. This is part of Dennis Bushnell's message (the one in Comic Sans in the PDF):

On the first flight there were thousands of dings/gouges in the tiles post flight which were almost all on the left wing and traced to ice impingement from launch vibrations dislodgement of the ice which builds up on the external tank dump line - WHICH IS LOCATED IN PROXIMITY TO THE LEFT WING ON THE STACK [Dump line is attached to the tank but runs down the tank near where the windward side of the left wing is positioned when mated to the tank in the launch stack]. Why this dump line was not repositioned to the other side of the tank away from the orbiter I do not understand.... Over the years each flight has experienced a unique set of heat shield damage from this ice impingement and as a consequence shuttle transition varies mightily flight-to-flight. Several times this damage was quite severe.
posted by nicwolff at 10:22 AM on February 22, 2003

Whoa, there's your smoking gun--well, except points off for the comic sans.
posted by y2karl at 10:25 AM on February 22, 2003

Not quite on topic but of interest:

Utah Desert Area Part of Shuttle Search
posted by y2karl at 10:30 AM on February 22, 2003

A few things:
1) The orbiter could not have shifted into the higher orbit to link up with the ISS. There is not enough fuel onboard the orbiter to move from its relatively low orbit, then up to a higher one.

2) It is highly doubtful that Atlantis could have been prepared in time to make an emergency run. In any case, Columbia most likely would have been scuttled anyhow because it may not be possible to do repairs while in orbit

3) We are all assuming that the cause of the orbiter's destruction was the failure of (several) tiles. While this is the leading theory, it is still only that. Recall that during the Challenger investigation the leading theory for *weeks* was a catastrophic failure of one of the SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) turbopumps which had been very fickle beasts since inception.

4) The act of ignoring the worries of the engineers is also very typical of the "beaurocratic plague" that most large organizations suffer. While NASA has improved such procedures since 1986, I have no doubt that such inefficiencies played a role - somewhere along the chain of events leading up to February 1.
posted by tgrundke at 10:31 AM on February 22, 2003

Anybody else stuck by the repeated equivocations in those emails? It is peppered with excuses to ignore it.
posted by srboisvert at 10:48 AM on February 22, 2003

'Well, I imagine if they'd known the could have taken a little trip over to the International Space Station and holed up there for a while until some damage estimation could be done.'

Fuel concerns aside, Colombia wasn't equipped to dock with the ISS, correct?
posted by Fahrenheit at 11:00 AM on February 22, 2003


You are correct about the number of equivocations. There are numerous comments to the effect of, "I know this is a very unlikely scenario", and "The chances of this occurring are very minimal".

However, in retrospect, reading the emails in detail, every concern suddenly seems incredibly relevant - does it not? Every theory and concern put forth in those emails are now up for good debate and investigation.

Unfortunately when you mix state of the art no-nonsense technology and engineering with good ole' fashioned bureacracies, this is what you are left with. Those concerns of the engineer - particularly in requesting various simulations be run with multiple variables seem very much common sense. I'm frankly *shocked* that no simulation run has been made with the landing gear configurations mentioned.

I state this as one who has been in the orbiter simulator and who knows that the smallest issue during decent can lead to a 'bad day' in frightening quick time. *ANY* deviation from the scheduled flight path/plan leads to immediate contingency plans. Specifically, the drag caused by assymetric landing gear deployment is a massive concern. Flying the orbiter is like landing a brick without propulsion. Ain't easy. Which leads me to wonder, if in fact the orbiter hull had been breached at the wheel well and the port gear destroyed, what would have happened on touchdown? Scuttle the ship? Land gear up? Could the orbiter even have made it to KSC with the altered aerodynamics?

All are excellent questions that I cannot believe have not been studied *in depth* many times before.
posted by tgrundke at 11:00 AM on February 22, 2003


You are correct, Columbia was not equipped with ISS docking equipment, nor the RMS (remote manipulator system) robotic arm (not necessary for docking, just an aside) as she was flying a scientific mission with the Spacelab module in the cargo bay.

Going on a limb here, assuming that Columbia could have made the orbital adjustment to meet up with the ISS I think it would have been possible to transfer the crew to the ISS through the use of normal EVS (extravehicular suits) space suits.

Though again, Columbia was in a significantly lower orbit than the ISS and did not have enough fuel to match orbits with the station.
posted by tgrundke at 11:05 AM on February 22, 2003

any of you that are computer professionals should know that saying anything negative is generally ignored by the suits.

tell an exec that, for instance, your company needs an update to repair a security flaw in a major server. the exec asks if it costs money. you say yes. he asks if everything will die without it. you say not necessarily, but it MIGHT happen.

what's the exec gonna say?


this simply reinforces my theory that, whether it's a shitty little dotcom or NASA, execs fuck shit up.
posted by aenemated at 11:25 AM on February 22, 2003

Huge photo of the "run down jalopy" Columbia had become, nicked from a link on the thread above this. Personally, I wouldn't even have sent a dog up in something that looked that battered.
posted by squealy at 11:28 AM on February 22, 2003

The point isn't necessarily whether something could or could not be done about saving the Columbia or the lives of its crew. The point is simply that the management at NASA never really examined a very dangerous situation to see what could be done.

It's easy to say "Nothing could be done in time..." but if there is any lesson from Apollo-13, it's that even on the smallest of spacecrafts, minor miracles can happen with enough directed brainpower. At minimum, the crew could have known the risks and talked to their families. The public could have known the risks too, and could have rooted for them.

In short, NASA keeping the risk secret is akin to security by obscurity... even worse, in that NASA actually waited for a product their engineers strongly expected had a defect to fail before they would consider doing anything about it.
posted by insomnia_lj at 12:11 PM on February 22, 2003

Okay, basic orbit mechanics. There are several parts to an orbit -- the highest point reached (called, here, Apogee, but that applies only to Earth.) how elliptical the orbit is, and what inclination the orbit is on. An inclination of 0 means the orbit in line with the equator, 90 would mean you were orbiting over the poles.

The least-energy launch is to launch into the phase that matches the latitude of your launch site. KSC launches like 29 degrees, Soviet launches like 49 degrees, and the ISS has an inclination of 51 degrees.

Columbia was in a 29 degree inclination orbit. The most expensive orbit change, in terms of energy, is to change inclination (or phase.) A little back-of-the-envelope shows that the cheapest ways to do so would be to 1) go to the moon, and change inclination while entering/exiting lunar orbit, or 2) Land, get on a new stack, and launch into 51 degrees.

Columbia could not have reached the ISS once in orbit. It could reach it from launch, but with much less cargo, which is why she wasn't used for ISS construction.

Normally, a rescue would be impossible -- they couldn't build out and launch another orbiter before they ran of power and air in orbit. However, Atlantis was sitting in the VAB, on a full stack, getting ready for payload loading for an ISS launch. It's theoretically possible that NASA could have refigured the launch for no-payload, bolted in extra seats, and rolled her out for a rescue. But that would have been dicey -- normal roll-out to launch is around 15 days, but a fair amount of that is in payload work.

Still, this is dependant on one thing -- NASA knowing, for certain, that the Columbia could not reenter safely. That's far from established.
posted by eriko at 12:11 PM on February 22, 2003

squealy, in that photo of the Columbia it didn't really much worse for wear than the Endeavour (huge image link), which is 10 years younger. It's amazing how well the space shuttles have fared though their many reentries, though they do get periodically refitted.
posted by zsazsa at 12:14 PM on February 22, 2003

I have a thought with which I would like to ask. It came to me while doing some caulking on some bathroom tiles.

Is it possible moisture or a piece of ice from the ice impacting the wing been lodged under a tile. Then upon re-entry this moisture boils and pops the tiles off.

Ever put room temperature water into a really hot pan?
posted by thomcatspike at 12:46 PM on February 22, 2003

hindsight is 20/20
posted by sophist at 1:01 PM on February 22, 2003

"A few things:
1) The orbiter could not have shifted into the higher orbit to link up with the ISS. There is not enough fuel onboard the orbiter to move from its relatively low orbit, then up to a higher one.

Just wondering but could this be a misinterpretation? Could the shuttle have achieved the higher orbit if they didn't plan on returning (without acquiring more fuel from somewhere) -- how much fuel is used to reenter and land?
posted by DBAPaul at 1:40 PM on February 22, 2003


The same imagery holds true for the other orbiters as well. She was a battle-worn ship, true - but if you looked at a 50 year old B-52 you'd see just as much wear and tear.
posted by tgrundke at 2:32 PM on February 22, 2003


Eriko gave a good explanation above as to why this is not possible. To change orbits requires far too much energy. I understand your point about going up to the station without the intent of returning, however I do not believe that Columbia sufficient thrust to change orbital inclinations to begin with.

The point by thomcatspike is an issue that has been brought up by engineers in the past - it is *possible* but it is not likely.

Unfortunately, when dealing with a beast as complicated at the shuttle orbiter, there are so bloody many things that can go wrong that sadly, it is only a matter of time before *something* goes wrong.

Insomnia makes the most salient meta-point however about management.
posted by tgrundke at 2:39 PM on February 22, 2003

Some points:
1. squealy: re: the "run down jalopy" comment: The performance of a very complicated machine like the orbiter has very little to do with its aesthetic appearance.

2. If in fact it were possible to emergency launch Atlantis and dock it to Columbia (I assume the emergency egress port or window, there are no other egress ports available without ripping the Skylab out) they could just land Atlantis with all 7 of them plus rescue crew and land Columbia on autopilot. I don't believe there are docking mechanisms available to dock to the emergency egress window, though, so one would have to be made in literally no time. They could also land Columbia in California or Spain so that its reentry would be over the ocean and the risk of debris hitting people would be less.

3. Changing Columbia's orbit in any other way than deorbit burn would be impossible I suspect. It probably has some extra fuel in the maneuvering system, but not enough to go anywhere useful.

4. Changing the reentry profile would probably be impossible too. Maybe it could lean on the right wing more to put less stress on the left, but it would still get plenty hot.

5. The wing breach is not currently attributed directly to the tiles as a few of you discuss above. It is thought to be either due to a damaged/ripped composite leading-edge panel on the front edge of the wing or to a damaged landing gear well door (which I suppose could be because of shattered tiles around it). Now the question is, how and when was that panel or door damaged.

We need a new reusable spacecraft system. The Shuttle is awesome, but very old and complex. If only Lockheed's design was less ambitious, we could have one by now... but Lockheed didn't do well enough. We need another try.
posted by azazello at 3:37 PM on February 22, 2003


I'm not certain that the orbiter can be landed entirely on 'autopilot' as it were. The final approach and touchdown are pilot controlled and I'm not aware if engineers have developed a system to be completely automated.

It's also next to impossible to shift the re-entry profile of the orbiter as far as 'leaning' or any other movement is concerned. The approach has to be near perfect as any excess turbulance caused by improper angle of attack, pitch, yaw would cause irregular airflow and irregular heating.

The STS system does need a replacement, however. As a technology test bed it's been a fantastic, if expensive 'experiment'. It's time to update the launch fleet to comprise heavy lift vehicles, light payload assist vehciles, and manned vehicles.
posted by tgrundke at 5:46 PM on February 22, 2003

I have a friend who works at NASA who is particularly bitter about the Columbia. Apparently, it is common knowledge at NASA that the shuttle is too old and too expensive. The computers are ancient, and the diagnostics are such that mission control knows far more about what is going on with the shuttle than the people on the shuttle itself. The people at NASA have wanted a financial commitment by the government for a more advanced vehicle, but the commitment hasn't been there.

My friend was working on a project for the shuttle that would give the crew live access to all sorts of diagnostics; lots of work was done on it, but unfortunately the project was shelved... unsurprisingly, it has recently been "unshelved".
posted by insomnia_lj at 8:32 PM on February 22, 2003 [1 favorite]


I do have a problem with everyone who jumps on the "Columbia/STS is old" bandwagon. Often journalists highlight the onboard computers as being "ancient", as an example.

While it is true that we're dealing with a beast that was primarily engineered in 1974, built in 1978-1979, and has been flying since 1981, there is a reason - beyond mere financial issues, for why NASA does not always employ the 'latest and greatest' technologies - and it's the same reason the Pentagon does the same. It's the old addage: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And in this case, especially when it comes to onboard computers, these are systems that were simple, highly resistant to solar and radiation interference, and *worked*.

Moving to new technologies is a risky endeavor because of the dangers of something going wrong.

THAT BEING SAID - I am of the strong belief that NASA has not applied sufficient funds toward refurbishing the orbiters on a timely enough basis. This is partly the fault of federal funding, partly that of NASA mismanagement.

There have been plans on the books to completely redesign the launch vehicle - switching to liquid fuel boosters, for example. A move to a new, lighter, and safer TPS (thermal protection system, or tiles) was in the wings as well. One component of the fleet that did receive MAJOR work, throughout the entire lifespan of the fleet was an impressive overhaul and redesign of the orbiter SSME system. The most complex, dangerous, and tempramental system on the STS platform (and the most powerful and complex powerplants ever developed), the SSMEs have been thoroughly reworked.

NASA needs to develop a long-term strategy and get a firm commitment from the country and the congress. As far as I'm concerned, NASA should re-orient itself to being the Lewis and Clarke of the 21st Century - paving the way, developing the techniques and technologies. I think that NASA's work on the ISS should stop at its development and deployment and let others run the facility once it is up and running. It's time to refocus our energies on a long-term goal : colonizing Mars, and develop a tactical plan around that goal.

Sorry for the ridiculous post length and rant.
posted by tgrundke at 8:13 AM on February 23, 2003

NASA also needs to actually show some ability to design cheap and reliable space flight systems. Every time over the past twenty years that they've tried to develop a shuttle replacement, it inevitably ends up hugely over-weight, hugely over-budget, and years behind schedule. Shuttle II, ALS, NLS, X-33, X-34, SLI... the list is practically endless.

NASA has been content to perform study after study instead of trying to come up with something that could actually get built, and it's finally come back to bite them on the ass.

I agree that the Shuttle is old and dangerous and expensive and should probably be replaced, but pointing the finger at "the nation" instead of at NASA is somewhat disingenuous.
posted by jaek at 4:43 PM on February 23, 2003

The use of "comic sans" really gives that engineering email punch, doesn't it?
posted by Ogre Lawless at 3:55 PM on February 24, 2003

Thanks tgrundke.
Are there current pictures of the debris collected to this point laid out in an organized fashion yet?
posted by thomcatspike at 6:35 AM on February 28, 2003

« Older Oren BenTov   |   "Killing Goliath: Life During Wartime": Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments