Columbia Investigators Test Impact of Insulating Foam
Friday, June 6th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- A chunk of hard insulating foam that was fired at a space shuttle wing panel during a test Friday shattered on impact, leaving dark streaks and what appeared to be foam bits embedded between the panel and an adjoining seal.
The test was conducted by Columbia accident investigators trying to determine whether a strike from a flyaway piece of foam during the space shuttle's launch in January could have damaged its wing enough to cause the ship's destruction.
The scientists were examining the tested panel Friday afternoon to determine the extent of the damage. Shards of foam were caught on a black drape that had been hanging behind it.
The test, originally planned for Thursday, was delayed twice, first by thunderstorms and then by a brief electrical problem Friday.
While the problem was being fixed Friday, a spokeswoman for the investigation board, Laura Brown, described to reporters the panel's outline for the report it plans to complete by the end of July on the cause of the Columbia's breakup.
Brown declined to provide any copies of the draft, but described some elements of it as reported by the Orlando Sentinel in Friday's editions.
Among the investigation board's concerns were poor risk management, questionable policy decisions and constant budget battles -- issues that have been discussed by board members over the past several weeks.
Brown emphasized that the outline was "a work in progress" and likely would change. She said the draft, dated May 23, was already the sixth revision and stressed that it had no findings or recommendations.
Friday's test on the shuttle panel was the first in which the solid foam is shot at the panels and seals that form the leading edge of shuttle wings. The key pieces were removed from another shuttle, Discovery.
During Columbia's liftoff, a 11/2-pound chunk of foam broke off the fuel tank and smashed into the leading edge of the left wing. The investigation board suspects the debris knocked a hole in the edge that two weeks later let in the scorching gases of re-entry and doomed the ship and its seven-member crew.
Last week at Southwest Research Institute, a similar-size piece of foam was fired at a wing replica made up of fiberglass panels and seals taken from the never-launched shuttle prototype Enterprise. The parts that took the brunt of the impact were deformed by the foam.
Hubbard said he and others expect the upcoming test to result in greater damage because the reinforced carbon is more brittle than fiberglass.
To simulate what investigators believe happened at the launch pad, the foam will be fired at 530 mph through the 35-foot barrel of a nitrogen-pressurized gun normally used to shoot debris at airplane parts. Twelve high-speed cameras will document the test.