February 22, 2003
WASHINGTON -- A NASA safety engineer warned two days before Columbia broke apart that the shuttle might be in "marginal" condition and that others in the space agency weren't adequately considering the danger of a breach near its left wheels, according to internal e-mails NASA disclosed Friday.
"We can't imagine why getting information is being treated like the plague," the engineer wrote in one of a series of messages describing internal concerns about Columbia's safety in the days before its breakup Feb. 1 over Texas.
The board investigating the accident, which got the e-mails Friday, believes the shuttle suffered a breach based on its analysis of rising temperatures inside the same wheel compartment that the engineer had cited for concern.
The engineer, Robert Daugherty of NASA's Langley research facility in Hampton, Va., wrote two days before Columbia's breakup that experts on the shuttle's protective heat tiles were concerned that Columbia's condition was "survivable but marginal" after it was struck by debris on liftoff.
Other documents NASA released showed engineers feared Columbia was struck on liftoff by three pieces of loosened insulating foam, not just the one previously acknowledged. NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said Friday officials believe one large foam piece broke into three smaller chunks before at least one struck the spacecraft.
Daugherty did not mention in his e-mails any concern that a breach might cause Columbia to break apart during its fiery descent, saying the risks of deadly heat burning into the wheel compartment was "arguably very unlikely."
But Daugherty explicitly warned in a Jan. 29 e-mail that "one of the bigger concerns" was damage to thermal tiles near the wheel compartment seal could permit a hole. He appeared worried most about pilots struggling to land Columbia with one or more tires inside damaged from extreme heat.
"It seems to me that if mission operations were to see both tire pressure indicators go to zero during entry, they would sure as hell want to know whether they should land with gear up, try to deploy the gear or go bailout," Daugherty wrote.
The accident board has previously determined Columbia almost certainly suffered a devastating breach along its wing and possibly its wheel compartment that allowed searing air to seep inside during its descent at nearly 12,500 miles per hour.
Board member James Hallock this week said investigators were "very much interested also in the landing gear door itself, because once again you have tiles all around the area, but you also have seals."
Unusual temperature readings inside the wing and wheel compartment began within minutes of the shuttle's re-entry, far off the coast of California.
Senior NASA officials have steadfastly supported assurances since the accident by the Boeing Co., a contractor, that Columbia was expected to be able to return safely despite the possible tile damage.
They also have maintained that concerns expressed in e-mails among midlevel engineers, such as Daugherty, were part of a "what-if" analysis and that even these employees were satisfied with Boeing's conclusions.
"During the flight, no one involved in the analysis or the management team or the flight team raised any concerns," NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said.
But the e-mails disclosed in Washington questioned some details about those assurances by Boeing, including underlying assumptions about the likelihood of minor damage from a large chunk of breakaway foam and whether injury to Columbia might have been caused by falling ice.
The e-mails also include references by Daugherty and another Langley employee, Mark Shuart, about secrecy over the studies of risks to Columbia. Shuart wrote Jan. 28 to two employees, referring to the foam strike, "I am advised that the fact that this incident occurred is not being widely discussed."
The e-mails, which were not passed to senior mission controllers in Houston during Columbia's flight, will be turned over to the accident board.
In other documents released Friday, a newly disclosed Boeing report said cameras saw three large pieces of debris, up to 20 inches long, that shattered into a shower of particles after striking Columbia along its left wing. The report, among those supporting Boeing's assurances to NASA that Columbia could return safely, was dated eight days before the spacecraft broke apart.
Earlier Boeing reports during Columbia's flight had focused on possible damage from "a large piece of debris," also about 20 inches.