E-mails Indicate NASA Worried About Columbia Crew’s Survival

Much of the debate over the shuttle’s stability, held by telephone and via e-mail between members of NASA’s Langley research facility in Hampton, Va. and controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, centered on concern that debris that hit the shuttle during takeoff may have damaged the shuttle’s landing gear.

At least two of the NASA officials worried the damage could make a safe re-entry impossible for the Columbia’s crew, according to documents released Wednesday.

“Why are we talking about this on the day before landing and not the day after launch?” William C. Anderson, an employee of the NASA contractor United Space Alliance LLC, asked the engineers on the afternoon of Jan. 31 — less than 24 hours before the Columbia broke apart.

Jeffrey V. Kling, a flight controller at the Johnson Center, provided a description earlier that day that closely mirrors what investigators think may have occurred to the shuttle if debris had caused a breach in the one of the shuttle’s wheel wells, allowing superheated air to pass through.

“If there was hot plasma sneaking into the wheel wells, we would see increases in our landing [gear] temperatures and likely our tire pressures. If we actually saw our instrumentation in the wheel wells disappear during entry then I suspect that the gear will not deploy anyway because the wires that control the pyros and all the hydraulic valves would burn up too,” Kling wrote.

Kling said his team recommended that NASA plan for the Columbia crew to bail out of the crippled vehicle, “assuming the wing doesn’t burn off before we can get the crew out.”

R.K. “Kevin” McCluney, a shuttle mechanical engineer, listed possible scenarios that could lead to LOCV, shorthand for “loss of crew and vehicle.” He said that officials should not make any changes to the shuttle’s landing pattern unless “there was a wholesale loss of data” from the vehicle. In that case, he said he would recommend the crew bail out of the vehicle. However, he added, “Beats me what the breakpoint would be between the two decisions.”

The messages released Wednesday include e-mails disclosed last Friday, in which Robert Daugherty, a NASA senior research engineer, discussed his concern that superheated air might damage the shuttle’s wheels or tires, leading to landing problems.

In a document summarizing the e-mails — released at the request of Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore — NASA Johnson Center employee Robert Doremus said the e-mails were part of a “‘what-if’ exercise,” adding that the engineers “agreed at the end of the discussion that we were doing a ‘what if’ discussion and that we all expected a safe entry on Saturday.”

Although the e-mails reveal that Langley supervisor Doug Dwoyer contacted research center director Del Freeman about the incident, NASA officials told reporters Wednesday that Freeman considered the matter resolved after he discussed it with Langley engineers and did not report it to more senior NASA officials.

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