Force of Impact

  • By Daniel Hart and Susan K. Lewis
  • Posted 10.14.08
  • NOVA

In the wake of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, investigators did a fairly simple physics calculation and realized that a piece of foam had struck the shuttle's left wing with more than a ton of force during lift-off, blasting a hole in heat shields that normally provide protection during reentry. In this simulation, follow in the investigators' footsteps to understand how featherlight foam could strike with devastating force.

Launch Interactive

In this simulation, see how a piece of lightweight foam could cause catastrophic damage to the Space Shuttle Columbia.

In creating this simulation, content developer Dan Hart used information from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report and consulted with investigators Scott Hubbard and Doug Osheroff as well as shuttle engineer Jim Peters, the chairman of NASA's Debris Integration Group.


Special Thanks

Scott Hubbard, Doug Osheroff, & Jim Peters


(Columbia ready for launch)
Courtesy NASA
Dan Nolan/© WGBH Educational Foundation
Video: (enhanced side views of foam strike)
Courtesy Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report

Related Links

  • Space Shuttle Disaster

    An investigation uncovers the human failures and design flaws behind the 2003 Columbia tragedy.

  • The Insider Who Knew

    NASA engineer Rodney Rocha, whose warnings about the Space Shuttle Columbia went unheeded, looks back at the disaster.

  • Investigating a Shuttle Disaster

    In the wake of the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy, NASA's Scott Hubbard was determined to find the cause.

  • Lift and Drag

    What are lift and drag? And how do they work?


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