Forwarded by: (Frits Westra)
Original Date: Wed, 19 Mar 2003 16:32:42 -0800

Columbia's Destruction May Be Tied to Mystery Object

By Leonard David
Senior Space Writer
posted: 07:20 am ET
19 March 2003

HOUSTON A data processing foul up by the U.S. Air Force prevented
early flagging of a mystery object falling off Columbia in orbit an
object that may be tied to why the space plane disintegrated en route
to Earth.

During Columbias second day in Earth orbit, Air Force Space Command
ground radar observed a large piece of structure floating free of the
space plane. It remained in orbit for a little over two days before
nose-diving into Earths atmosphere.

But no one in the Department of Defense or NASA knew about the
discovery of the fairly large object until days after the loss of
Columbia and its seven-person crew. has learned that a data processing issue meant that analysts
did not recognize the object for what it was a piece drifting away
from Columbia. Meanwhile, the shuttle crew continued onward in its
science-gathering mission, apparently unaware of the incident.

The object was released from the space plane at very low velocity.
Some experts now speculate that it could have been a left wing panel
of heat protecting reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC), or associated
reentry hardware.

Whether or not the shuttle-related object might have been the product
of a meteoroid striking Columbia is yet to be determined. Others
speculate that external tank foam hitting the underside of Columbias
left wing during ascent, impacting RCC panels, remains a likely

Apollo 13-style action plan

If NASA had known that the piece was cast off early in Columbias
16-day mission, a campaign to better characterize the object would
have swung into high gear including use of ground and space-based
assets of military and intelligence agencies.

Proper identification of the mystery object might have also spurred a
judgement that Columbia was unfit for return to Earth. That knowledge,
sources here say, would surely have kicked off an Apollo 13-style
action plan to rescue the space planes crew.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) is attempting to
identify the mystery object.

The object in question could be a RCC panel that came loose, said
James Hallock, a CAIB member and Chief of the Aviation Safety Division
for the Department of Transportation at the Volpe Center in Cambridge,

Loose parts

Hallock said at a CAIB press gathering March 18 that a shuttles rumble
into orbit "is a wild ride."

"Im surprised a lot of things dont come loose," Hallock said. Once a
shuttle settles into orbit, the environment is much milder, he added.

But given that mildness, would unfastened parts of the shuttles
heat-thwarting hardware just fall off?

Hallock said that spinning around Earth, Columbia went through cycles
of heat and cold that could contribute to some part of the space
planes thermal protection system finally being set free.

CAIB chairman, Admiral Harold Gehman, added that just prior to the
object being picked up by radar, Columbia performed a side-to-side
maneuver. That motion could have set adrift the shuttle piece, he

Radar signatures

Brigadier General Duane Deal, Commander of the Air Force 21st Space
Wing told that tests are underway using 28 sample pieces of
shuttle hardware to help determine what separated from Columbia and
pinpoint the true nature of the object.

Radar signatures of the test specimens, Deal said, are to be
contrasted to Air Force Space Command radar reflections of the mystery
space object.

Deal said that the piece from Columbia was discovered after the
accident versus while the shuttle was in orbit. "This [object] was not
something being tracked while it was on orbit," he said, although
several thousand radar observations were made to keep track of
Columbias whereabouts while circling Earth.

Gehman told that the CAIB isnt specifically looking into
NASA and contractor readiness in rescuing stranded astronauts. "Thats
too narrow a hypothetical for me. I would look at that and look at ten
other things too," he said.

On-orbit repair and inspection, even taking a lap around the
International Space Station so its crew can survey a shuttle are
worthy of consideration, Gehman said.

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