RAY SUAREZ: Tonight in the first determination of the shuttle investigation board investigators said "Columbia" certainly suffered a devastating breach allowing superheated air inside the left wing and possibly the wheel compartment. The board announced that heat damage from a missing tile wouldn't be sufficient to cause the unusual temperature increases detected before the shuttle disintegrated. In recent days focus continued on a piece was the left wick.
Yesterday NASA released an e-mail message written by a NASA engineer two days before the crash warning of possible catastrophic consequences to the shuttle if significantly damaged by foam insulation that struck during liftoff. Also yesterday, members of a congressional panel questioned NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe about the independence of the board set up to investigate the disaster. For more about the investigation and safety concerns at NASA, I'm joined by Donna Shirley, former manager for mars exploration at NASA. She now teaches aerospace engineering at the University of Oklahoma. And William Kauffman, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. Well, just a few moments ago, the investigation board came through with the findings that tile damage alone couldn't have done this and that there was some sort of severe breach of the exterior skin of the space craft. William Kauffman, your reaction?
WILLIAM KAUFFMAN: Well certainly the loss of a tile or two or three tiles wouldn't do what we saw, because we have had previous flights where we have lost that many. But if we have lost several square feet of tiles for whatever reason and I think that will be a long debate, you could get significant thermal damage to the structure. And since the structure is aluminum, it starts to soften at about 500 degrees and we're talking about air stream temperatures of 3,000 degrees. So you would rapidly lose structural strength and then of course the dynamic pressure gets in and starts to literally rip across -- apart the air craft. Also the tire itself is a potential bomb. The nitrogen pressure in the tires 3,000 pounds per square inch and if that heats up significantly the tire could explode and that could do massive structural damage and it could also damage controls, electrical systems and other things.
RAY SUAREZ: I should point out our guests are just hearing this just as the news has been released as we have heard it at the NewsHour. Donna Shirley, the leading edge or wing is being mentioned as one of the prime candidates for where this breach occurred along with the fuselage or left landing gear door. Are you surprised they have managed to narrow this down so quickly?
DONNA SHIRLEY: Well it depends. Certainly if they're anticipating, I mean, if they're saying that the damage was so extensive and they have some telemetry data, that is some data that's come back from the space craft to indicate that or some of might have been based on some of the debris they have so I'm not really sure what the source of their information is, but certainly it's completely plausible if there was major damage to that wheel well or to as Mr. Kauffman says as to the tire exploding that sort of thing that would certainly have resulted in destruction.
RAY SUAREZ: Let's look at the e-mails reported on, there was an exchange between two NASA associated engineers. Robert Doherty did consulting for NASA over the years and he topped his memo by saying: "Before I begin I would offer that I admittedly erring on the side of absolute worst-case scenarios and I don't really believe things are as bad as I'm getting ready to make them out." But just a few sentences later when talking about the possible damages to tires he says: "It seems to me that with that much carnage in the wheel well, something could get screwed up enough to prevent deployment and then you are in a world of hurt." He's talking about the failure of landing gear when the shuttle is about to touch down, but was this... did this strike you as particularly prescient, William Kauffman?
WILLIAM KAUFFMAN: Well, I think with what you have with the engineers is you have the very conservative pessimistic worrywart engineers saying, well, how bad can things get, because you know Murphy's Law says don't forget that things can go from bad to worse. And then this message has to be dealt with by perhaps the optimistic Pollyannaish managers who are going to say, well, maybe the engineers are unduly pessimistic but I think you do in this situation look at the worst case scenario because the consequences are very, very severe. With regard to the breakup, maybe they have found some pieces now that -- thermal destruction on the leading edge and then the further structural damage to the dynamic pressure.
RAY SUAREZ: This evening Admiral Gehman chairing the investigative board confirmed one of the shuttle's tires has been found near Hemphill, Texas but they aren't sure which one of the six tires it is yet but it was severely damaged. Tell us a little bit those e-mails, Donna Shirley, is there a lot of back and forth between people in this level of engineering about the possibilities for events like this?
DONNA SHIRLEY: Oh, absolutely. All of the time that you're flying or even when you're not flying, it's the job of the engineers to think everything that can possibly go wrong. They have in the back room some people called gremlins who introduce problems into the practices that the controllers have while they're practicing to fly the shuttle. While you're building the whatever spacecraft it is -- you have review boards whose job is to be absolutely savage in trying to figure out what could go wrong, and they push you very, very hard to make sure that you have thought of everything. So this is pretty standard, and in this case there was an engineer at Langley, which is in Virginia, sending an e-mail to an engineer at Johnson Space Center who is in Texas. That kind of shows you the collegiality of the engineering structure and that sort of exchange goes on all of the time.
RAY SUAREZ: But Robert Doherty later in the same e-mail send again maybe I'm going over the top here. Is that a part of nature of this kind of dialogue, you say maybe it's not going to happen but here's what could happen?
DONNA SHIRLEY: Absolutely. It's called scenarios, and scenarios are extremely important in designing not only spacecraft but the whole mission. So you for instance say, okay, what could go wrong and if it went wrong what might happen out of it? So, for example, on the Pathfinder mission, which I worked on in the late '90s, we constantly looked at what would happen if the air bags were to be penetrated by a rock? What do we have to do to prevent that? What would happen if it got too cold and the rubber couldn't wake up? So we had all of these scenarios going on all the time. With something as complex as the shuttle you'll have even more of that.
RAY SUAREZ: William Kauffman Admiral Gehman also confirmed that unsolicited tips are pouring into investigators often from former NASA associated scientists and engineers and wouldn't give many more details than that. Is that sort of the human intelligence equivalent of picking up the debris from the ground in Texas piecing bits of intelligence together?
WILLIAM KAUFFMAN: When you collect data there is always strange things that happen that you dismiss and say it's not important but then in retrospect you look back and say there is really something there and a missed it. Looking back at all the testing and things that went on will be very helpful. The telemetry was mentioned. We have over 4,000 channels here and this is much better than an aircraft flight data recorder. We should be able to see the sequential failure of systems and sensors and one of the things I haven't heard yet and like to know about the accelerometers that were on the "Columbia" -- did they notice any structural failures like talk of a meet right impact maybe on the leading edge on the early days of flight and could we see that on the accelerometer, so I think as go through all of these channels of data that came back we may start and notice strange things to be significant.
RAY SUAREZ: And Donna Shirley, during yesterday's hearings, Mr. O'Keefe was questioned and questioned again about whether there was enough of an arm's length relationship between the investigators as the board has constituted now and NASA itself. What do you think?
DONNA SHIRLEY: Well, I think there is two layers of these things that go on with the challenger accident, the Rogers Commission. If you read Richard Fineman's book called "What do you Care What other People Think," he outlines how the process works and there is the technical investigation, technical review and I think that will be done extremely thoroughly because they have no reason not to find out what went wrong technically.
The question I think people have is that most of these technical problems turn it out fall back on to management decisions made at some level that resulted in whatever particular failure it is. That was the case with the Rogers Commission found that the O rings were the technical failure but why it was flown when these O rings were cold? Well those were management decisions and in fact, there was pretty much a smoking gun that they were very poor management decisions made for political reasons, so I think the concern probably is that we... that the existing commission while it will do a good job technically may not probe deeply enough into the actual management and political structure of the shuttle program itself.
RAY SUAREZ: William Kauffman same question, is there enough independence on this board?
WILLIAM KAUFFMAN: Well, I think these are very good people and should arrive at good technical results as mentioned but I think it's the appearance what, people perceive. And it would probably be good to have some members on that board who have no connection to the military or to the government establishment. We almost need someone like Woebegone who can claim total innocence outside the beltway and perhaps offer a citizen's perspective, perhaps more naive but I think it brings a good appearance to have true outside members.
RAY SUAREZ: William Kauffman, Donna Shirley, thank you both.