SAN ANTONIO, Texas - A chunk of foam fired at high speed cracked a space shuttle wing panel Friday, offering what investigators said was the most powerful evidence yet to support the theory that a piece of the stiff, lightweight insulation doomed Columbia.
The test was the latest and most crucial in a series of firing experiments meant to simulate what accident investigators believe happened when foam struck the shuttle's left wing during liftoff.
Nearly 100 observers, including two shuttle astronauts, watched under sunny skies as the brief countdown ended with the word "zero" and the loud pop of a nitrogen-pressurized gun.
The 11/2-pound piece of foam, shot at 525 mph, cracked the reinforced carbon panel and knocked it out of alignment, creating a gap of less than one-tenth of an inch between the panel and an adjoining seal. The crack was at least 3 inches long.
"We demonstrated for the first time that foam at the speed of the accident can actually break" reinforced carbon wing pieces, said NASA executive Scott Hubbard, the member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in charge of the testing.
"To me, that's a step forward, maybe even a significant step forward, in our knowledge, and we need to complete the test series ... to understand the whole story."
Hubbard said more analysis would be needed to show that the damage would have allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter the wing during re-entry, as investigators believe happened to Columbia.
A suitcase-size piece of foam broke off the shuttle's big external fuel tank during the January liftoff. Investigators suspect it damaged the leading edge of the left wing enough to cause the ship's destruction. Seven astronauts died when the shuttle broke up over Texas on Feb. 1.
Friday's outdoor test was conducted at the independent Southwest Research Institute. To re-create the conditions at Columbia's launch, the foam was fired through the 35-foot barrel of a gun normally used to shoot debris at airplane parts. The key pieces tested - slanted at a 20-degree angle - were taken from another shuttle, Discovery.
Twelve high-speed cameras documented the experiment, six of them inside the wing, six of them outside. Some of the footage was later played back in slow motion. It showed the 22-inch-long piece of foam skidding across the panel and shattering - which is also what happened to the chunk that hit Columbia.
On close examination, the crack in the panel was visible to the naked eye.
"If such a crack had been found on an inspection, you would not fly with it. You would not take a piece that is this damaged into space," Hubbard said.Also .. .
THEFT ACQUITTAL: A law officer was cleared Friday of stealing debris from Columbia, the first case to go to trial involving the theft of space shuttle wreckage.
Harrison County Constable Robert Hagan II said he forgot to turn the items over to authorities and did not intend to steal them. Hagan, 46, was among volunteers who gathered debris after the shuttle broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts on board.
"I'm very excited about this being over with," Hagan said. "It's been a rough week. It's been a rough four months."
Hagan was charged with stealing government property and could have been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.