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Introduction(Editor's note: This story was originally published on July 7, 2003.)
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — It's almost over except for the shouting.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board's (CAIB) final report is targeted for release by the end of July and isn't expected to include many surprises that will alter the widely accepted theories about what caused the Feb. 1 tragedy.
However, what is anticipated are the specific requirements the board will levy on NASA before the agency can return the shuttle fleet to flight — some of which have already been announced — as well as the overall reaction to the report's findings from Capitol Hill and the general public.
CAIB chief Harold Gehman, a retired Navy admiral, has repeatedly said the report will attempt to put the Columbia disaster in perspective, setting the stage for renewed national debate over the true risks and benefits of human spaceflight.
At the same time, then-NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe warned agency employees the report was "going to be a nasty piece of writing" and that following the release things are "going to be really ugly."
SPACE.com presents this combination preview and summary of what we believe the CAIB will or should say, and what some of the possible consequences might be.
The information is offered in a question and answer format that is loosely organized around the draft 10-chapter report outline the CAIB released in June 2003.
FIRST STOP: Doesn't NASA Know How to Fly the Shuttle?
Doesn't NASA Know How to Fly the Shuttle?Slide 2 of 21
Doesn't NASA Know How to Fly the Shuttle?Shuttle Columbia lifted off for the first time on April 12, 1981 on STS-1. It was the first time two astronauts flew a new U.S. spacecraft on its maiden voyage.
After only three more test flights during the next two years, NASA declared its space transportation system operational, removed the ejection seats from Columbia and began using the shuttle as a one-size-fits-all solution for the nation's commercial, military and scientific needs in space.
With each mission NASA gained more confidence in its ultimate flying machine. Crew sizes quickly grew and satellites were launched, repaired and rescued by spacewalkers buzzing around on jet backpacks.
Then the 1986 Challenger disaster popped NASA's bubble. A presidential investigation panel found fault with the shuttle's technology and NASA's decision making process. It took NASA nearly three years to fix the booster rocket problem and restructure its management.
On Sept. 29, 1988 shuttle Discovery returned America to space. It wasn't long before the shuttle program regained confidence, renewed its status as a symbol of technical superiority and resumed its role as an icon of the American spirit of exploration.
Then on Feb. 1, 2003 Columbia and its crew of seven astronauts was lost.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board will say that despite the success the shuttle program has enjoyed, NASA has become too familiar with the program, like an old friend whose buddies have overlooked its quirks and flaws. In a word: operational. Instead, NASA must treat each shuttle mission as a test flight.
The board will point out that NASA's historic X-15 rocket plane flew 199 missions from 1959 to 1968 and every mission was considered an extremely dangerous test flight. The shuttle on the other hand has flown 113 times during a 22-year period. In effect, NASA has more experience with the vehicle that led to the shuttle than it does with the shuttle itself.
Next page: What Happened?Slide 3 of 21
What Happened on Feb. 1, 2003?Slide 4 of 21
What Happened on Feb. 1, 2003?On Feb. 1, 2003 shuttle Columbia's seven-member flight crew wrapped up a 16-day marathon science mission that was born out of international diplomacy, politics and a desire to keep scientists busy while awaiting final assembly of the International Space Station.
More than 80 experiments, ranging in subject matter from developing new perfumes to building stronger foundations in sandy soil, kept the crew busy working around the clock in two shifts. Problems were few.
Beginning on the second day of the flight, military radar made more than 3,000 observations of a small object drifting away from Columbia before it burned up in Earth's atmosphere.
On Feb. 1 at 8:15 a.m. EST (1315 GMT) Columbia's braking rockets were fired and the shuttle fell out of orbit heading toward a landing at Kennedy Space Center. As the shuttle passed over the United States, observers spotted glowing pieces of debris falling from Columbia.
At 8:59:32 a.m. EST (1359.32 GMT) commander Rick Husband acknowledged a call from Mission Control and was cutoff in mid-transmission, never to be heard from again. During this same period, sensors in the left wing recorded rising heat. The shuttle remained on course but was working harder than it ever had before to stay that way.
About a minute later the vehicle broke up, killing the seven astronauts and raining debris over Texas and Louisiana. Within an hour NASA was executing its disaster plan, which included forming the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. As the nation learned of the tragedy, meetings convened to determine what went wrong and the debris recovery effort began.
NASA followed its plan exactly and earned credibility in the eyes of the general public for the way it handled releasing information and helped the nation mourn the loss of seven heroes.
Ron Dittemore, the recently retired shuttle program manager, should be commended for the way he represented NASA during those first awful days.
Next page: What Broke?Slide 5 of 21
What Broke on Columbia that Caused the Tragedy?Slide 6 of 21
What Broke on Columbia that Caused the Tragedy?Shuttle Columbia and its crew were lost during re-entry when the incredible heat that is generated from atmospheric friction entered the interior of the left wing, causing it to melt from within until it failed and broke free. When this occurred the shuttle spun out of control and disintegrated.
It is believed the seven astronauts died instantly.
Heat protection tiles and thermal blankets cover most of the shuttle to act as its heatshield. The nose cap and leading edge of the wings are protected by panels of reinforced carbon carbon (RCC), a composite material capable of withstanding 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A small hole in the left wing's leading edge initially allowed the heat inside the wing. As the material eroded away the breach grew larger until the wing was consumed.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board will say they are positive — but can't conclusively prove — that a piece of foam insulation fell from the shuttle's external tank about 82 seconds after launch and struck the left wing's leading edge, damaging a panel of the RCC material.
It's likely that the object seen via military radar floating from Columbia during the second day of the mission was a piece of the shuttle's heatshield, which either caused the breach in the left wing or contributed to making it larger.
Reconstruction of the recovered debris at the Kennedy Space Center, an analysis of data recorded during the launch and re-entry, as well as the results of tests in which foam was shot at heatshield material all independently back up the theory.
It's more than circumstantial evidence and less than proof positive. Beyond a reasonable doubt describes it best.
Next page: How Could it Happen?Slide 7 of 21
How Could NASA Let This Happen?Slide 8 of 21