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Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC

July 22, 2003, 11:46AM

NASA official dismissed launch day foam strike as safety threat
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
Mission Management Team transcripts released 7/22:

WASHINGTON -- Houston mission managers who served as the safety net for
space shuttle Columbia barely fretted over a debris strike on lift-off
that investigators now believe doomed the spacecraft and its seven
astronauts, according to records released by NASA today.

Transcripts of five meetings of the Mission Management Team at Johnson
Space Center show that despite the lack of data on the size of the
debris or the location of impact, there was no particular concern
expressed over the foam insulation that broke off of the shuttle's
external fuel tank and struck the orbiter during its Jan. 16 lift-off. 

By Columbia's flight, such debris hits had become routine, and mission
managers dismissed the potential damage as something to repair on the
ground before the next flight, not as a safety issue on orbit or on the
way home. 

The MMT, which is required to meet daily while shuttles are in orbit,
met only five times during the 16-day mission, and discussed the foam
strike -- briefly -- at only three of those meetings. The team members
were so confident the debris posed no safety risk that they didn't tell
Columbia's crew about it until a week after launch, and mentioned it
then only because the media knew about it and a press conference was

Investigators now believe the foam strike left a gaping hole in the
leading edge of Columbia's left wing, setting off a chain of events that
caused the spacecraft to break apart over Texas on Feb. 1, killing all

The meeting transcripts bolster criticism by members of the Columbia
Accident Investigation Board, who have said NASA's complacency is as
much to blame for Columbia's demise as any technical failure during the

The board's final report on the accident, to be released next month,
will devote about half of its girth to discussing NASA's organizational
and management failures. Among the board's recommendations will be
significant changes in the way future missions are managed, including a
requirement that NASA view each launch, orbit and landing as if it is
the first and pay much closer attention to every anomaly. 

Already, NASA has reassigned the Mission Management Team's chairwoman,
Linda Ham, as well as two other managers who worked on Columbia. Ham and
the other members of her team have declined repeated requests for
interviews since the accident. 

The team's first meeting during the mission was Jan. 17 , the Friday
morning after the launch. At that point, there was no discussion of the
foam strike because NASA engineers had not yet scanned films of the
lift-off and did not realize the orbiter had been hit. 

During the next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 21 , after some managers
returned from the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Don
McCormack, who oversaw in-flight engineering operations at JSC's Mission
Evaluation Room, brought up the foam issue toward the end of the

"As everyone knows, we took the hit somewhere on the left wing leading
edge," McCormack said. "...We're talking about looking at what you can
do in the event we really have some damage there..." 

Ham interrupted McCormack to note that there had been a similar debris
strike during a previous mission. She asked her colleagues to pull the
data from that flight to look for any correlation. 

"..You know it's not really a factor during the flight because there
isn't much we can do about it (in orbit), but what I'm really interested
in is making sure our flight rationale two flights ago was good..." she
said before moving on to another topic. 

Another team member, Lambert Austin, mentioned the debris again later in
the meeting, complaining that the quality of the lift-off film was poor.
But Austin, too, considered the issue something to deal with after the
crew was safely home. 

Meanwhile, he said, assumptions were being made that the size and
location of the debris strike were similar to those of the previous
mission. The data was being studied, he said, to see "whether or not
there is anything unique we ought to attempt or consider for entry based
on that kind of a worst case scenario." 

When the team met three days later, on Friday, Jan. 24 , Phil Engelauf,
a mission operations official and veteran flight director, reported,
almost as an afterthought, that Columbia's astronauts had been told of
the debris strike the day before. 

"We sent up to the crew about a 16-second video clip of the strike just
so they are armed if they get any questions in the press conferences or
that sort of thing," he said. "We made it very clear to them, no

Later in the meeting, McCormack gave the team an update on the damage
assessment, with the caveat that it was incomplete. 

"The analysis is not complete ... but we're just kind of jumping to the
conclusion of all that," he said. "They do show obviously there's
potential for significant (thermal protective) tile damage here but ...
the thermal analysis does not indicate that there is a potential for a
burn-through. There could be localized heating damage. Obviously there
is a lot of uncertainty in all this in terms of the size of the debris
and where it hit..." 

Ham interrupted with a question: "No burn-through means no catastrophic
damage and localized heating damage would mean a tile replacement?" 

"It would mean possible impact to turnaround repairs and that sort of
thing, but we do not see any kind of safety of flight issue here yet in
anything that we've looked at," McCormack responded. 

"No safety of flight and no issue for this mission, nothing that we're
going to do different. There may be a turnaround?" Ham asked. 

"Right," McCormack said. 

But he added that when the shuttle landed, engineers could discover
significant tile damage -- perhaps the loss of an entire tile. 

"Would it be a turnaround issue only?" Ham asked. 

"Right," McCormack said. 

At that point in the transcript and in an audiotape of the meeting,
there is discussion in the background that is inaudible. When some
managers alerted Ham that they could not hear, she summarized the
conversation, saying Calvin Schomburg was "just reiterating .. that he
does not believe that there is any burn-throughs so no safety of flight
kind of issue. It's more of a turnaround issue similar to what we have
had on other flights." 

Schomburg is an engineer who is an expert on the shuttle's thermal
protection system. He is not an expert, however, on the reinforced
carbon-carbon panels on the wing's leading edge where the debris strike

The following Monday, Jan. 27 , an unidentified engineer from the
Mission Evaluation Room reported that the analysis of the foam impact
was complete. 

"There is no predicted burn-through and no safety of flight issue," the
engineer said. 

"A turnaround issue?" Ham asked. 

"Yeah, possibly," the engineer responded. 

The transcript of the MMT's final meeting, on Thursday, Jan. 30, shows
no mention of the foam strike issue. 

Two days later, as Columbia headed home to Florida, hot gases burned
through the wing, tearing the spacecraft apart.

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