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Sensors give hints of rising trouble

As four separate investigations begin, new details paint a picture of a spacecraft unexpectedly heating up as it tried to get home.

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2003

HOUSTON -- As NASA prepared for multiple inquiries into its competence and future, the agency on Sunday tightened its investigative focus on the left wing and protective tiles of the fallen shuttle Columbia.

Just before it broke up on its return to Earth, Columbia experienced an abnormal rise in temperature and wind resistance on its left side, forcing the craft's automatic pilot to adjust its path to the right.

Seconds later came the disintegration of the spacecraft and the deaths of the seven crew members, mourned Sunday around the nation and the world.

The sensor readings appeared to support a theory that tiles on the left wing may have been damaged or fallen off, leaving the spacecraft vulnerable to tremendous heat.

"We are gaining some confidence it was a thermal problem rather than a structural one," said shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore. He called it "interesting" that a sensor on the left side of the shuttle showed the temperature rise by 60 degrees while one inside the payload bay remained normal.

"We know the left side of the vehicle was getting warmer than the right side," he said.

Nevertheless, he said it was too early to draw conclusions.

"We haven't ruled anything out."

The left side of the spacecraft has been the focus of suspicion almost from the start. Investigators are trying to determine whether a piece of insulation that broke off from the big external fuel tank damaged the shuttle's tiles or left wing during its Jan. 16 liftoff.

Dittemore said NASA engineers had lengthy discussions about the foam insulation. During the conversations, he said, they discussed the possibility of using high-powered telescopes to look at it, but decided that any damage would only be superficial.

"We concluded it did not represent a safety concern," he said.

Donald H. Emero, NASA's chief engineer for the shuttle orbiter program from 1989 to 1993, said some damage to tiles was experienced during each mission he took part in.

Typically, he said, NASA would replace about 80 to 100 damaged tiles after a flight.

"We have even lost a tile before," he said, "but never in a critical area."

Furthermore, Dittemore said: "Even if I had information, I can't do anything about it. I can't go out and do tile repair. There was no option. If you want to come home, you have to come through the atmosphere."

The manufacturer of the fuel tank disclosed Sunday that NASA used an older version of the tank, which the space agency began phasing out in 2000. NASA's preflight press information stated the shuttle was using one of the newer super-lightweight fuel tanks.

Harry Wadsworth, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, the tankmaker, said most shuttle launches use the "super-lightweight" tank and the older version is no longer made. The 154-foot-long tank contains liquid propellant for the three main shuttle engines.

Wadsworth said he did not believe the insulation, which is sprayed on, would adhere any differently to the older model. The insulation is essentially the same.

Better than a black box

Columbia did not have a "black box," the crash-resistant flight recorder carried on commercial jets.

But it had something better: an elaborate system of sensors that continuously sent data to Mission Control in Houston.

On Saturday morning, the shuttle's telemetry system gave the first indications of problems and, over the next few weeks, it is likely to provide a wealth of information that could ultimately explain why the shuttle broke apart.

NASA is pursuing clues on two fronts. The agency is collecting thousands of pieces of wreckage that fell across Texas and Louisiana.

Meanwhile, engineers at Mission Control are examining the computer records from Columbia's last minutes.

"Telemetry data is what's going to solve this, not the wreckage," said Greg Feith, a former investigator in charge for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Aviation investigators like Feith are accustomed to black boxes that take only 15 or 20 measurements from a plane. But the shuttle's telemetry system has hundreds of sensors that record temperature, pressure levels and the flow of fuel and hydraulic fluids in all areas of the spacecraft. Together those sensors are likely to provide a detailed picture of what went wrong.

"You are getting such minute detail that when they finally crunch all of that data, you could probably put together a very good picture of how the shuttle broke up," Feith said.

Investigators are also searching the ground for the shuttle's "four corners": the nose, tail and wingtips. The locations of those parts can indicate what broke off first. Investigators are carefully documenting the location of each piece of wreckage using a global-positioning device.

Cox said the Columbia investigators' goal is to determine "where are the items and in what sequence did they fall to earth."

When a shuttle piece was located this weekend, searchers left it in place until a precise global-positioning satellite reading could be taken.

Each shuttle part is numbered; NASA officials say experts hope to trace the falling path of each recovered piece and learn when in the fiery re-entry it came off the spacecraft.

At least 20 engineers from United Space Alliance, a key NASA contractor for the shuttle program, were dispatched to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, La., for what is expected to be a round-the-clock investigation.

Inquiries soon under way

NASA's top official, Sean O'Keefe, named a former Navy admiral to oversee an independent review of the accident.

Harold W. Gehman Jr., the retired Navy admiral who helped lead the Pentagon's inquiry into the USS Cole bombing, will head that commission.

Committees in the House and Senate also plan to examine the disaster.

"The key issue for us in Congress is, why did it happen, how did it happen, how do we fix it and then how do we project on forward with manned space flight?" said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

Some lawmakers vowed to re-examine the rigid spending controls that a Congress impatient with bloated space station budgets imposed during the 1990s.

While policymakers didn't blame Saturday's tragedy on inadequate resources, they said Congress would convene hearings to examine whether NASA is being given enough money to perform its mission safely.

Some good may come of the disaster, some said, suggesting the possibility of new money from Congress and rekindled national interest in space exploration.

"I think we will end up better off," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who serves on the Senate space subcommittee. "I think people will realize first that you can't cut the budget in the way we have and really accomplish the mission to the fullest. And, I think people will realize what a great and daring program this is."

Said House space subcommittee member Nick Lampson, D-Texas, "I'm hoping this will create enough positive interest in space that we will reassess what we were doing and give greater emphasis to funding NASA."

The Bush administration budget being unveiled today, which was prepared before Saturday's disaster, proposes a NASA budget of nearly $15.5-billion next year -- up from the current $15-billion. Human space flight funding has remained relatively flat at about $6-billion for years.

Mourning lost colleagues

For many people, the loss of Columbia and its crew had little to do Sunday with dollars and budgets. Across America and around the world, the tragedy gave rise to grief and reflection.

Have faith during suffering, Monsignor Laurence E. Higgins said at afternoon Mass at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa.

"(God) didn't say, 'I promise you a rose garden,' " he said. "Let's try to see God's will in everything that happens, whether it's bad or whether it's good."

NASA mourned its lost colleagues, too, but stayed busy managing a vast crash site and gathering information for upcoming investigations into the crash.

For a second day, searchers scoured forests and rural areas over 500 square miles of eastern Texas and western Louisiana for bits of metal, ceramic tiles, computer chips and insulation from the shattered spacecraft.

By Sunday afternoon, officials had marked 1,413 fields of debris in five Texas counties, more than 800 fields and 1,200 pieces of debris in Nacogdoches County alone.

At the Johnson Space Center and at Cape Canaveral in Florida, in the shadow of a tall granite memorial honoring astronauts killed in the line of duty, grieving visitors gathered Sunday to pay tribute to the crew of the Columbia with flowers, candles and tears.

Sheryl Donan, 38, knelt with her two sons, Daniel, 3, and Damon, 2, in front of the memorial in Florida. "It's good to grieve with others," Donan said. "I feel isolated at home, like you're all alone."

-- Times staff writers Chris Tisch and Anita Kumar contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press and Dallas Morning News.

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