NASA Officials Discussed Damage Before Columbia Disaster

This could have possibly caused “excessive heating” within the wheel well and damaging the shuttle’s systems, according to e-mails released Friday.

In the messages, NASA engineer Robert Daugherty said he worried that the debris that hit the shuttle during its Jan. 16, 2003 takeoff may have damaged its delicate insulating tiles.

Citing information from researchers at NASA’s Ames Vertical Motion Simulator complex, Daugherty said in a Jan. 29 e-mail the damage to the shuttle had been estimated at “7 inches by 30 inches by half the depth of the tiles down to the densified level.”

“One of the bigger concerns is that the “gouge” may cross the main gear door thermal barrier and permit a breach there,” he said.

Daugherty indicated that such a breach could severely damage or even destroy the landing gear.

“One of my personal theories is that you should seriously consider the possibility of the gear not deploying at all if there is a substantial breach of the wheel well,” Daugherty wrote in a Jan. 30 e-mail. “The reason might be that as the temps increase, the wheel (aluminum) will lose material properties as it heats up and the tire pressure will increase. At some point the wheel could fail and send debris everywhere.”

At the least, Daugherty said, NASA should be prepared to deal with a loss of tire pressure in the shuttle’s landing gear and consider what effects excessive heating would have on the craft’s hardware systems. In an earlier message, Daugherty expressed his frustration with some of the agency’s efforts to deal with the problem.

“[W]e can’t imagine why getting information is being treated like the plague,” Daugherty wrote Jan. 29. “Apparently the thermal folks have used words like they think things are ‘survivable’, but ‘marginal’.”

Daugherty did not suggest in his e-mails that he thought the entire shuttle could break apart, but said there was “no way to know” how the damage would affect the craft.

Another e-mail, by Daniel Mazanek of the agency’s Spacecraft and Sensors branch, called into question whether the debris that struck the shuttle during launch was insulating foam or whether it could be ice that had gathered on the vehicle.

“I would like to suggest a re-examination of the debris impact video footage to determine if the fragment(s) could have originated from another location, possibly an ice buildup somewhere under the orbiter,” Mazanek wrote.

Other documents NASA released included analysis from Boeing Co., a contractor, that indicated cameras captured as many as three large chunks of debris, each up to 20 inches long, smashed into the shuttle on takeoff. The last of the reports was dated Jan. 24, 2003 – eight days before the shuttle disintegrated during re-entry.

NASA has maintained that Boeing had assured flight officials that the shuttle would be able to return to earth safely despite the debris incident. Officials said Friday that e-mails like those released were part of a brainstorming “what-if” analysis, and that even the e-mails’ authors were satisfied with Boeing’s data.

“During the flight, no one involved in the analysis or the management team or the flight team raised any concerns,” NASA spokesman James Hartsfield told reporters Friday.

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