Space Shuttle Disaster
Force of Impact
Launch interactive

Force of Impact

When Space Shuttle Columbia launched in January 2003, a piece of foam the size of a briefcase broke off from the shuttle's external fuel tank and hit the left wing. Some shuttle engineers worried that the foam might have inflicted considerable damage (see The Insider Who Knew), but ultimately mission managers concluded that the foam strike did not pose a threat to the safety of the orbiting shuttle and its crew. As is all too well known, two weeks later Columbia disintegrated upon reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

In the wake of the disaster, accident investigators did a back-of-the-envelope, fairly simple physics calculation and realized that the foam had struck with more than a ton of force. It was damage from this blow, they suspected, that led to the shuttle's destruction. Yet some NASA officials were skeptical, claiming that lightweight foam—the stuff of Styrofoam cups—could not have inflicted the fatal damage. In the end, the investigators proved their point with a definitive test: firing foam at a replica of the wing's leading edge and blasting out a gaping hole in the panels that normally provide thermal protection during reentry. In this interactive, follow in the footsteps of the investigators to understand how a piece of featherlight foam could strike with devastating force.

Written by Susan K. Lewis
Content development by Daniel Hart

Space Shuttle Disaster Home | Send Feedback | Image Credits | Support NOVA

© | Created September 2008