View Full Version : Shuttle disaster "smoking gun" found, says NASA

8th July 2003, 06:57 PM
After almost 5 months of investigating, simulating, and searching, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) feels it's finally found the "smoking gun" that led to the breakup of the shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003. A wing mockup using actual parts from another in-service shuttle was subjected to an impact of a 1.6 pound chunk of foam moving at 530 miles per hour, the speed of the orbiter when the collision occured. The result was a jagged hole in the reinforced carbon panel on the leading edge of the wing measuring over 16 inches in diameter.

Previous tests had fired a chunk of foam at a wing section from the shuttle Enterprise, resulting in deformations of the wing panels and other small but significant damage. However, since the Enterprise wing was simply for atmospheric testing and never designed for re-entry, the panels were made of fiberglass, a much more flexible material than the brittle reinforced carbon panels found on Columbia.

"The test we conducted ... demonstrates that this is ... the most probable cause," stated Columbia Accident Investigation Board member Scott Hubbard. Hubbard also indicated that the damage to the wing panel was much more catastrophic than anyone had suspected, causing a "visceral reaction" when the test members saw the damage. Sensors on the wing during the test recorded impact forces as high as one ton, shattering the leading edge of the wing and tearing the 16-inch hole.

Such a breach in the wing would have allowed the 3,000 degree blowtorch of re-entry gases to infiltrate the wing, melting the aluminum substructure and causing complete wing failure. At re-entry speeds of 18,000 miles per hour, the shuttle would have then tumbled out of control and disintegrated within seconds. All 7 astronauts aboard were killed.