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Space Shuttle Columbia ‘Smoking Gun’

A test yesterday may have revealed the cause of February's space shuttle Columbia disaster. Gwen Ifill discusses the continuing investigation with The New York Times' Matthew Wald.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, the smoking gun in the shuttle Columbia investigation. Yesterday, the board looking into what caused Columbia to break up last winter, ran a test to determine whether the shuttle wing could have been damaged by debris that broke away during liftoff.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    Four, three, two, one.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    That dramatic demonstration at the Southwest research institute in San Antonio shocked many of the people in the room. Among them: Scientists; NASA officials; and reporter Matthew Wald of the New York Times. He joins us now. Welcome, Matt.

  • MATTHEW WALD:

    Hi, Gwen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, inside the room yesterday, what was the response to seeing that kind of pretty dramatic hole blown in the side of a wing?

  • MATTHEW WALD:

    There was a sort of gasp and "wow" that went up from the crowd. It surprised even the physicist who organized it, because previous tests had produced small cracks or small shifts in these panels, and this one just blew a gaping hole in it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, give me a sense about what we actually saw there. Was it a piece of foam that approximated what we had seen before, and…

  • MATTHEW WALD:

    You're seeing their best guess at a recreation of the accident. Certain parts they can guess well at: The mass of the piece of foam. Other parts are more of an assumption. The target, for example, we're not exactly certain where the foam hit the real shuttle. We think it hit that panel. The panel that was used as a target was taken off an actual shuttle, and it is used, which is important, because these things deteriorate over time. But you can never be exactly certain the one you used as a target was the same… in the same condition as the one that was on the "Columbia." The other thing you are never completely certain of is that in real life, the piece that hit was tumbling over and over again, and you're not sure whether it hit on a corner, whether it hit with a full face, with a full edge. This was their best guess, their best estimate. It was interesting to realize it's not the worst case. It's simply the average case, their average estimate of speed and angle, et cetera, and yet it produced this enormous hole.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And they produced a hole, and it was definite enough for them to use the term "smoking gun." That seemed as definitive as we are going to hear.

  • MATTHEW WALD:

    Yes. They had been discussing for a long time. They knew from shortly after the investigation began that there had been this foam that shed that hit that wing, and that they knew that there was a breach that let in hot plasma gas in the wing. And the question was, how firmly can you tie those two events? And they think that this test allows them to tie that as a cause-and-effect relationship very tightly. They're happy because they are much more specific and much more certain than they ever thought they would be able to get.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But early on, I remember talking on this broadcast about Ron Dittemore, the former shuttle program manager's assertion shortly after the accident, that it couldn't have been the foam. What's changed?

  • MATTHEW WALD:

    Right. Exactly. He said, "it must be something else, we don't understand how it can be foam." Well, if you go back and look at the physics more carefully, you realize that this chunk of foam doesn't weigh very much. It's maybe two pounds or a little less. But that it's going into a stream of air at twice the speed of sound and slowing down very suddenly, and hits with about a ton of force. And that is, in fact, enough to put holes into the winged panel, which is made of a material that was not chosen for strength. It was chosen for heat resistance. The other problem is, when they analyze this during the flight, they had data for the effect of foam hitting tile. They didn't have data for the effect of foam hitting this u-shaped panel, which is something called reinforced carbon. In fact, they still don't have much data on that. And that's why the test that you just showed is very important to the investigation, but it's only a start for NASA. NASA has got to keep throwing debris objects at those panels to understand more about how they're vulnerable.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, this is not the last test, but it's also not the first. There have been a series of tests leading up to this point, haven't there?

  • MATTHEW WALD:

    Right. This is number seven, but it's only the second using reinforced carbon. Panels like that cost $800,000 each, and take six to eight months to make, and don't have a lot of spares. So, this test had to be engineered very carefully because you don't get a chance to do it again if you get it wrong. In fact, the hardware is about $2.5 million worth of hardware.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    There is also a little mystery that maybe this helps us solve about something they began to call "the second-day object." Describe that for us.

  • MATTHEW WALD:

    That's right. The second-day object is an object that Air Force radar noticed during the second day of flight drifting away from the shuttle. It was not actually discovered. The radar images weren't analyzed until after the shuttle had crashed. No one is sure what the object was. It looks like it could have been a piece of debris from the wing. And once the shuttle is in orbit, it's in the sun and it's out of the sun, so it heats and it cools and it could undergo further damage. The shuttle could maneuver, and loose bits could float away. They've always wondered what it could be. Now they think it may have been an actual piece of that panel. It is not one of the seals between the panels, it's not some other piece of exotic hardware. It's just a piece of the panel. And yesterday they brought out a piece that they broke loose in this test, carefully cradled on a little cushion, and said, "See, this is almost as big as what we think we saw drifting away."

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's talk about the would have, could have, should have part of this. If they had known that there was a hole potentially this size in the wing of the shuttle, was there any way it could have been fixed– in flight?

  • MATTHEW WALD:

    I don't think so. And there were two options. One was to try to fix it, and the other was to send a rescue mission. As it turns out, the options were mutually exclusive, because once you climbed in and out of the air lock a few times, you started using up air that you'd need badly in order to wait in orbit long enough for somebody to come get you. The Columbia accident investigation board did commission a study, partly because NASA said, "Oh, there wasn't a thing we could have done even if we had known." And the study commissioned cast doubt on that. The study they commissioned said, "If in fact you knew you had a serious problem and you went all out, it is possible — although by no means certain — that could you have arranged a rescue mission." There is another part to this thing, which is at one point, the NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, had said, "Look, even if we knew we had a problem or is suspected there was a problem, we could have climbed out of the air lock, looked and still not seen it because it probably would have been only a little crack." Well, if you think that the day-two object left a hole, or you saw the film that you just showed of the test yesterday, first of all, an astronaut would certainly have seen it, and second of all, one of our "national assets," which is the non-classified term for "spy satellite," would probably have had a pretty good chance of seeing a hole that big. There are contrast problems, lighting problems, but certainly something that large, there was a good chance to see it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The accident investigation board is not only looking into what caused this, but also about the underlying I gather NASA management structure, which may have allowed this to have happened.

  • MATTHEW WALD:

    Certainly allowed this to happen. Every complex technological accident happens because something went wrong, because you're pushing the edge of the envelope, material science isn't advanced enough. But it also happens because somewhere somebody mismanaged, or some group of people mismanaged something. What the test yesterday does is establishes the physical side, what the approximate direct cause was. It doesn't establish how they knew for years they had a foam problem and they gradually let it slide into the background so they weren't concerned about it. Now, NASA has a mixed track record. This is the second problem that they've known about in advance, they've sort of forgot about, and lost a vehicle and crew. They've had other problems they discovered that they thought could result in loss of vehicle and crew, and they have been very responsible and quickly fixed them, or just stood down and not launched until they could fix them. And then they've had other problems, one of which was discovered by this board, that could in fact cause loss of vehicle and crew that they didn't know about. They weren't systematic enough. They weren't enthusiastic enough, inquisitive enough.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Are they hoping, then, that the conclusions that the board reaches after having looked at all the physical evidence, the underlying management evidence, are they hoping they can then determine what the threshold is for future missions, what the damage threshold is for future missions?

  • MATTHEW WALD:

    That's part of it. And in terms of return to flight, they have two thresholds. One is: What's the minimum we have got to get done before we can get back to work on the space station, ship more water and other consumables out there. The other is: What do we have do to go back to long-term operations, if in fact the shuttle does go back to long- term operations. They've got one set of bars is substantially higher than the other. And the cultural problem at NASA will probably take a lot longer to solve than the problem of how do you prevent foam from shedding from this particular part.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Okay, Matt Wald, thank you very much.

  • MATTHEW WALD:

    Thank you, Gwen.

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