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Falling shuttle debris poses problems

Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC
Permission granted by the Houston Chronicle

July 31, 2003, 11:26PM

NASA begins study of dangers posed by falling shuttle debris
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

In the aftermath of the shuttle Columbia's breakup over Texas, NASA has
initiated a study of risks posed to the public by its use of runways in
Florida, California and New Mexico, a space agency spokesman said

Columbia's Feb. 1 disintegration at more than 200,000 feet scattered
234,000 pounds of debris along a 240-mile-long, 10-mile-wide swath of
mostly rural East Texas and western Louisiana. 

The shuttle's seven-member crew perished, but there were no casualties
on the ground from the falling debris. NASA's study will attempt to
gauge the risk of fatalities and injuries if a breakup occurred over a
more populous area. 

"This is an outgrowth of the Columbia accident," James Hartsfield, a
space agency spokesman, said of the internal study. "Fortunately, no one
on the ground was injured, but certainly in light of what occurred and
where it occurred it's very prudent to go look at this." 

Shuttle managers consider the coastal runway at NASA's Kennedy Space
Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to be their primary runway. The
most-used backup is Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., northeast of Los
Angeles, the nation's second-most populous city. A second backup at
White Sands, N.M., has been used just once in the shuttle program's 113

The study, which will be complete before NASA resumes shuttle missions,
could influence both where flights land and the flight paths available
to the descending spacecraft. 

NASA hopes to resume shuttle missions in March, but the agency
acknowledges that the timing of the first post-accident flight could be
altered by the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board,
which are expected in late August. 

The report by the 13-member panel likely will include an assessment of
the risks posed by Columbia's breakup to people in its flight path. 

The hazard may not have been as great as it seemed, according to a
source familiar with the initial board findings. 

"People have said it was a miracle that no one was hurt, but the study
shows that was consistent with the predicted result," said the source.
"That part of the country was sparsely populated. Even if it was more
populated you could have casualties, but the risk does not increase

The shuttles are about the size of a DC-9 airliner. At its high altitude
and velocity, Columbia was quickly torn into many small fragments.
Search teams recovered about 85,000 fragments, which constituted about
one-third of the spacecraft. 

The largest fragments, components from Columbia's three rocket engines,
weighed between 500 and 1,000 pounds and fell in western Louisiana.

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