OT: The Columbia?

Subject: OT: The Columbia?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 3 Feb 2003 10:15:26 -0500


David Spreadbury reports: <<Apparently [NASA] did not feel that the loss of
tiles at takeoff did not pose a serious enough threat to the mission.>>

This is one of those issues that we won't know about for some time to come,
if ever. As of last night (CNN, NASA press conference ca. 7 PM), NASA had
retracted their earlier statement that tiles had fallen off during takeoff,
though they did confirm that foam insulation from the fuel tanks had struck
the shuttle during takeoff. My first reaction to this was that if they knew
that tiles had fallen off, they had no business re-entering the atmosphere
without trying a patch--if at all--and I can't imagine either NASA or the
astronauts would have tried re-entry under those circumstances; in theory,
the shuttle can land with a single tile missing, but multiple tiles
represents a dubious proposition at best.

Moreover, there was no announcement at any time (that I'm aware of) that
there was any fear that the shuttle had sustained significant damage. If
they'd had any reason to suspect that, there would have been lots of
"expectations management" going on to prepare us for a disaster (or at least
to dramatize the situation and get some good publicity from the drama), and
you can bet that the astronauts would have been given time to say their
farewells to their families, just in case.

Given how abruptly communication was lost, and the little data already
recorded (e.g., a 60-degree temperature increase in 5 minutes in the left
wing right before they lost contact, four times the rate of increase in the
right wing) I'm betting that the shuttle did indeed lose multiple tiles, and
suffered a burn-through during re-entry; at those speeds, the superheated
atmosphere entering the shuttle would have incinerated everyone and
everything in the cockpit almost instantly--a distinct mercy compared with
what the Challenger astronauts endured. If there had been a purely
structural failure, it seems to me that the pilots would have at least had a
few seconds to curse before they lost the ability to communicate. But this
is nothing more than educated speculation. It's going to be a long while
before anyone knows what actually happened.

In the meantime, my sympathies to the friends and families of the
astronauts. We tend to forget (poor technical communication) just how
dangerous spaceflight really is, no thanks to Star Trek and its ilk.

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada

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