What caused the disaster?
April 23, 2003: The independent investigation team has all be arrived
at a firm conclusion. A seal on the
left wing was struck by foam
during liftoff and fell off the next day, they believe, creating a
gap that let hot gas
enter the ship during re-entry. Story
A sort of "black box" recently recovered on the ground reveals that
hot gas penetrated the left wing earlier
than previously known. The
newfound data, thought scant, suggests Columbia probably had a
problem before it began re-entry
into Earth's atmosphere and that the
problem was likely on or near the leading edge of the left wing,
A Florida Today investigation recently showed that NASA fueled and
launched Columbia in weather ripe for
producing ice on the external
fuel tank, potentially setting up a situation in which insulation
foam, possibly heavy
and laden with ice, might have damaged the craft shortly after liftoff.
Separately, officials have said a mystery object that floated away
from Columbia during its second day in
orbit may have had something
to do with the disaster. Some experts speculate the object, which
fell into the atmosphere
a couple days later, could have been a heat
protection tile or some other piece of the shuttle, reports
Leonard David. A data processing issue meant the U.S. Air Force did not recognize the object for what it was and NASA was
not informed of it until after the disaster.
The investigation board, meanwhile, said on March 18 that super-
heated air rushing inside the space plane's
left wing was now the
leading candidate to explain Columbia's demise.
Meanwhile, lab tests are underway to help determine what might have
caused the breakup. But so far there
are no firm results and several
possibilities remain on the table. Even some new scenarios were being
Investigators have not ruled out pilot error, though there are no
indications that this was the cause. They
are also studying
additional stress load experienced on the left side of the shuttle 62
seconds after liftoff. The space
plane's age is also being looked
into as a possible factor. [Story on these aspects]
Officials now say that during liftoff, three distinct pieces of
material came off the external fuel tank
and may have hit parts of
the left wing (on Feb. 21, they had said at least two pieces, and
possibly three, were involved).
Though long said to be insulation
foam, this stuff might also have been ice, a combination of ice and
foam, or possibly
material applied under the foam, investigators now
Columbia as it broke apart.
Meanwhile, preliminary lab experiments have surprised researchers,
showing that high-speed foam hitting the
shuttle wing and its thermal
protection tiles might harm the aluminum structure underneath,
without leaving visible
damage at the surface. SPACE.com reported
March 13 that tests are planned for early April to shoot external
at shuttle wing material.
On March 4, officials announced that melted aluminum was found on
recovered thermal tiles and inside the
leading edge of the left wing.
The shuttles' skins are aluminum, protected by the heat-resistant
tiles. Officials said
this finding supports the possibility that the
shuttle was destroyed by hot gas that penetrated a damaged spot on
wing. They have not yet determined, however, how that gas was
On March 11, investigators explained that when aluminum is vaporized,
as it might have been from hot gas
inside the wing or wheel well, its
particles become volatile. Rapid burning of those particles could
behave like a bomb,
and might explain one or more of the bright
flashes observed from the ground as the shuttle broke apart.
In late February and early March (2003), NASA detailed how engineers, flight planners and outside contractors
debated disaster scenarios that, in retrospect, contained hauntingly accurate aspects. Officials first acknowledged Wednesday,
Feb. 26 that engineers had exchanged e-mails during the mission discussing whether damage that might have occurred during
liftoff would cause problems during re-entry or landing.
Otherwise, the list of possible answers has grown along with a list
of questions. Even space weather experts
are looking over data for
signs that something abnormal might have occurred on Feb. 1 where
solar energy interacts with
Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field.
The idea that hot gas entered the shuttle through a breach in the
left wing or wheel well goes back to Feb.
13. Many experts suspected
then that a reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) panel on the forward edge
of Columbia's left wing
was the first major piece to break loose
during re-entry as the shuttle approached the California coast. In a
account published Wednesday, Feb. 19, SPACE.com's Jim Banke explains how this might have happened and how a missing panel
could have led to the disastrous cascade of events that brought
The hot gas was likely not "plasma," as had been first reported,
officials said. Hot gas surrounding the
shuttle during re-entry had
not yet reached the plasma stage, which would occur lower in the
The independent investigation board acknowledged late Tuesday, Feb.
18, that the shuttle's problems began
when it was over the Pacific
Ocean, well before it broke apart above Texas. Investigators are
gathering data from ground-based
"microbarometers," sensors all
across the west that might have detected minute anomalies in
Columbia's movement as the
problems developed. The sensors detect
minor changes in air pressure that propagate through the atmosphere.
One of these sensors, in Texas, recorded an explosion equal to a few
pounds of TNT. "Our guess is that it
could have been caused by a
rapid decompression, which is what would have happened if you
ruptured the crew compartment,''
said Eugene Herrin, a geophysicist
at Southern Methodist University.
Outside experts said the shuttle's aluminum skin and overall
construction is not designed to handle an infusion
of hot gas, which
can reach temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees and is very expansive.
A 1997 independent report by
the National Security Council warned
that a bit of manmade space debris or a natural meteorite could cause
a hole in
the vulnerable leading edge of a shuttle wing upon re-
entry, and that the result would be a "blowtorch" effect, leading
the demise of the craft.
NASA cast some doubt on whether the hot gas -- not yet plasma -- that likely breached Columbia would have had
this blowtorch effect.
Shuttles, like all spacecraft, are routinely peppered by meteoroids
the size of sand grains, paint chips,
and other debris. The shuttle
is designed, in theory, to handle minor impacts. Heat tiles
sustaining minor damage, typically
small divots, are routinely
replaced after flights.
Columbia was the oldest shuttle in the fleet. In the last major
overhaul, done in 2001 by the Boeing Co,
the entire shuttle was
inspected for damaged tiles and stress to its aluminum frame and
modifications were made. The
independent investigation team is
looking into the details of the overhaul as part of the inquiry but
they are not yet aware of any link to the problems on
the ship's final flight. Columbia flew one successful mission after
Other scenarios for breaching the shuttle that have not been elimated:
a strike by a meteoroid or space junk,
accidentally triggered onboard explosive devices the possibility that
Columbia's waste expulsion system might havedeveloped a chunk of
ice during the flight that could have damaged the wing. The waste vent
is in front of the left wing. It expels urine and excess water created by the
power system. In a 1984 flight, a basketball-sized chunk of ice developed
on Discovery. The crew broke it off prior to re-entry using the shuttle's
robot arm. Columbia did not need the arm for its science mission and so
it was not available.
Earlier in the investigation, it was learned that a military radar
detected some object, which might have
been ice, near the shuttle
early in the mission.
On March 12, Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) chairman,
retired Admiral Hal Gehman, said as many
as 5,000 people were still
conducting daily searches for debris, though the findings lately have
been mostly small pieces.
In all, more than 28,000 bits of debris,
small and large, had been collected as of March 10. Gehman expects
to turn up when weather improves, when snow melts, and
farmers begin plowing fields.
On Feb. 19, NASA asked for public help in finding debris in Arizona,
Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. Search
teams have had little luck
finding Columbia debris significantly west of Fort Worth, Texas.
Experts in tracking the
breakups and paths of space rocks through
Earth's atmosphere have been called in to help determine where debris
have fallen. The effort is intended to locate possible debris
in the mountains of California that might be among the first
pieces to have separated from the shuttle.
Much of the investigation centers on increased heat detected by
sensors in and around the left wing and left
wheel well moments
before all contact was lost with Columbia.
After analyzing the data, officials say the first problems were noted
at 8:52 a.m. ET on Feb. 1 in a brake
line behind the left wheel well
and a failing sensor on the aircraft's skin, near the rear of the
left wing on the underneath
side. A tire in the left wheel well then
showed signs of problems before a pressure gauge failed. By 8:59,
temperatures had been noted in at least four other sensors,
including two on the fuselage, and a handful had gone offline.
Shuttles are not equipped with the "black boxes" that airliners
carrry to store onboard data and communications.
It is not yet known
how much data might have been sensed in the final seconds, before the shuttle came apart, but not transmitted
A portion of Columbia's left wing was recovered. It was further west
than most of the other debris, and it
could be a "significant" find,
officials said. NASA planned to test a mockup of the wing in high-
speed wind tunnels,
looking at possible patterns of damage,
investigation team member Scott Hubbard said Feb. 11.
A photo of Columbia taken from the Starfire Optical Range shows what
might be a jagged leading edge of the
left wing and a plume behind
it. Contrary to early reports, the photo was not taken with any sort
of advance military
A military facility in the Southwest captured pictures of Columbia,
taken during the re-entry phase. One
image shows what might be
jaggedness on the leading edge of the left wing near the fuselage and
a plume of something
trailing the left wing. But officials were not
confident enough in the resolution of the image to draw any
The eerie, dark silhouette of Columbia was photographed at the
Starfire Optical Range (SOR) at Kirtland Air
Force Base outside
Albuquerque. Contrary to initial reports, however, it was not taken
with the facility's high-tech
equipment. Instead, it was taken by
engineers who had connected a commercial 3 1/2-inch telescope to an 11-year-old Macintosh
The investigation team, meanwhile, asked the Air Force Space Command to review data from spy satellites that
might contain useful
Earlier stages of the investigation
NASA has been warning since the day of the disaster that no one
should jump to conclusions. Yet the agency's
early and frequent
release of information -- sketchy as much of it was -- had been
compelling and led to near-conclusions
in many minds. The open policy
was remarkable compared to how things were handled after the 1986
Once incredibly tight-lipped, NASA was thinking
out loud in the initial days of the Columbia investigation. That
however, when the independent investigation board took over.
Until Feb. 4, the case had seemed relatively strong that missing heat
tiles were to blame, related to a root
cause of a launch problem. A
bit of insulation foam from the external fuel tank used to boost the
shuttle into space
came off just after liftoff and hit the left wing.
It might have ripped off tiles that protect the shuttle from the heat
re-entry. More likely, officials said, it would have only damaged
the tiles. In fact, during the mission they concluded
that there was
no significant damage, which explains why no extraordinary efforts
were mounted to look into the matter
further prior to reentry.
Yet once Columbia came apart, the foam seemed a likely culprit.
Thinking on this has see-sawed ever since.
The state of normal matter depends on temperature, which regulates
how fast molecules move and therefore
how far apart they are. Plasma, a superhot gas, is an entirely different animal, being electrically charged and very expansive.
PLASMA: What is it?
[IMPORTANT NOTE: Officials now say that the hot gas that surrounded Columbia and appeared to breach the craft
had probably not yet reached the plasma state.]
Plasma is sometimes called a fourth state of matter (in addition to
solid, liquid, gas). It's created when
gas is superheated and
electrons are stripped out, leaving electrically charged particles.
Plasma occurs naturally in interstellar space and in the atmospheres
of our Sun and other stars. Scientists
also create plasma in labs in
order to study emissions from the violent regions around black holes.
A fluorescent lamp
is an example of a highly contained plasma.
Plasma reaching as much as 3,000 degrees surrounds the shuttle during re-entry as the craft plows through Earth's
atmosphere. Plasma can also be created by impacts from meteoroids or space debris. NASA has not said how Columbia's problem-causing
plasma was allowed under the craft's skin, though they know there must have been some sort of hole or gash.
How plasma can damage a satellite. NASA says hot gas, but probably
not plasma, breached Columbia.
Satellite operators worry about impact-generated plasma. Even a
relatively small meteoroid would vaporize
upon impact, generating a
cloud of plasma. (IMPORTANT: Small meteoroids hit shuttles frequently
without causing problems
other than minor pits in heat tiles.)
On a satellite, however, electrical parts are exposed. Because the
plasma is electrically charged, short
circuits can result. An
electrical current flows from one electrical part of the satellite to
another location, through
the cloud, and damages an instrument. It is
similar to the damage a lightning strike might cause.
In 1993, during the August Perseid meteor shower, a meteor hit an
Olympus communications satellite. The impact
formed a plasma cloud,
and the craft's attitude control system was zapped. By the time
operators could stabilize it,
they had depleted all of its attitude-
control propellant and the satellite was lost.
Did Columbia have a "black box" like airliners?
Not exactly. But it did carry a data recorder, found intact in Texas
on March 19, that holds 9,400 feet of
magnetic tape containing clues
that have proven helpful in the investigation. Otherwise, the
system is designed to constantly download
information to ground control. It is not clear how much data might
lost in the final moment of the shuttle flight that might
possibly have been retrieved had there been a black box aboard.
In an interview with Computerworld, Steve Schwartz, CTO and founder of UniTrends Software Corp., a backup and
crash-recovery company in Myrtle Beach, S.C., explained the technical aspects of the shuttle downloading: "There's a network
that uses a protocol named SCPS (Space Communications Protocol Standard), an improvement over TCP (Transmission Control Protocol).
The network is IP-based and runs under a virtual LAN; astronauts are able to send/receive e-mail."
Last-minute data that might have gone into a black box might not have been transmitted to the ground, though
what actually happened has not been laid out by NASA. Schwartz, however, said the download system is sometime busy acknowledging
transmissions and retransmitting previous blocks of data that were not properly received. So sometimes current data sits in
a buffer, awaiting its trip to Earth.
NASA did say early on in the investigation that the final 32 seconds
of data transmitted by the shuttle was
ragged and not readily
readable. Officials planned to work with the data to try and make
sense of it.
What is the Starfire Optical Range?
The Starfire Optical Range (SOR) is at Kirtland Air Force Base
outside Albuquerque. The facility routinely
tracks shuttles. The SOR
houses a 11.5-foot (3.5-meter) telescope designed for satellite
tracking. It also has a 5-foot
(1.5 meter) telescope. Both use an
advanced system of adaptive optics (AO), which counteract the
blurring effects of
The Starfire Optical Range uses a laser to create a fake star in the
sky. The telescope then uses known
parameters of the reflected fake
star to compensate for blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere while
making an image
of a real object. The facility, below.
Constantly changing turbulent air makes stars and other objects
twinkle, and it also makes them hard to image.
The more powerful a
telescope, the more impact the problem has. So instead of one single
mirror, AO uses several, and
they are adjusted on the fly during
observations. Adaptive optics is all the rage in astronomy right now.
mission SOR is to develop new optical and imaging
technologies to support Air Force aerospace missions. SOR's larger
using AO, could spot a basketball 1,000 miles away.
In May 1991, the Department of Defense declassified much of its
research and development of adaptive optics.
Laser beacon adaptive
optics technology, developed at the 1.5-meter telescope, has the
potential to revolutionize ground-based
The facility also has some clever engineers who took a now-infamous
photo of Columbia during re-entry with
a commercial 3 1/2-inch
telescope hooked up to an 11-year-old Macintosh computer.
-- SPACE.COM's Leonard David contributed to this answer
Re-entry: What were the astronauts doing, and
were they aware of the problem?
Columbia's communications with the ground were normal, and then they stopped, so little is known about what
went on inside the craft
thereafter. A tape of the final communications were released Feb. 12.
The astronauts would have had on their orange pressure suits,
equipped with parachutes that would be of no
use at the altitude of
the disaster. They were strapped in tight.
As the shuttle moved into denser atmosphere over California, the
outside of the craft heated up, as always.
The craft began to slow,
much like the water in a pool gently slows a diver.
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, says the process of re-
entry takes about an hour but seems
like it flies by.
"When you look out the windows, all you see is orange and pink glow,
seemingly surrounding the shuttle --
almost looks like flames licking
the shuttle," Ride said.
Columbia was more than 200,000 feet up (roughly 38 miles or 60
kilometers) moving at about 12,500 mph (20,120
communications were lost.
A final 32 seconds of data was beamed down after voice communications ceased with Columbia. That data has been
hard to decipher, however. Todd Curtis, former airline safety analyst with Boeing Co., said: "West of Fort Worth they lost
communications but had signals transmitting data. That says to me the voice communication system was off-line but parts of
the data communication system were broadcasting. This implies the antennas for broadcasting this data were still intact,''
said Curtis. "You could conclude certain systems, such as power sources, were still running."
That analysis must be considered speculative at this point.
Many people have asked what might have then transpired, and how much time the astronauts might have had to contemplate
their fate. This is not really known, and it seems appropriate to not speculate.
Could Columbia have been damaged by a meteor or space junk?
NASA has not ruled this out. A 1997 report by the National Research
Council warned NASA of the threat to
shuttles from both natural and
man-made stuff in space [Story].
Small rocks in space pose a threat to all spacecraft, particularly
small satellites. Meteors have caused
minor damage on shuttles in the
past, and the phenomenon is well-studied (The Hubble Space Telescope, in space for more
than a decade now, is loaded with pits).
The shuttles are designed, in theory, to handle impacts of marble-
does the shuttle carry small pyrotechnic devices?
A space shuttle contains many small explosives used for deploying
certain gear during a mission and for emergencies.
If a shuttle's
landing chute ever deployed early, pyrotechnic devices could also be
employed to detach it, for example.
The shuttle's landing gear compartment contains small explosives
designed to deploy the gear if the normal
system fails. An accidental
triggering, possibly by heat, could be catastrophic. NASA is now
looking into this possibility
as a cause of the Columbia disaster.
But the measured rise of 30 to 40 degrees in the wheel well is not,
for now, seen
as a likely trigger.
In some cases, the explosives are integrated into a nut-and-bolt
setup, and are designed to destroy it. A
small hole is drilled into a
nut, and something akin to a small firecracker is inserted. A
detonates the charge, which splits the
metal. Referring to the nuts and bolts as "explosive" is a bit
say. It implies that the firing is uncontrolled
and random. Computers handle the split-second timing of the
Foam: What is the foam insulation and why does it fall off?
Foam insulation is sprayed onto the the external fuel tanks in a
gooey form and then becomes hard as
a brick but light, like
Styrofoam. It keeps the liquid hydrogen and the liquid oxygen fuel
super cold. Shuttles ride
these 15-story tanks during liftoff, then
the tanks separate.
NASA video showed that 81 seconds into the flight, a 20-inch, 2 1/2-
pound piece of the foam fell off and
struck Columbia's left wing. The
shuttle Columbia was moving more than at twice the speed of sound.
The impact is thought
to have involved a relative speed of no more
than 500 mph.
The foam is fragile enough to have been damaged once in a hailstorm,
forcing a previous shuttle mission to
be delayed while the insulation
was repaired. Chunks have come off in flight before, too. They can be
them heavy projectiles. Columbia sustained damage in this way in 1992 and 1997, and foam struck a booster rocket of Atlantis
"The thing of this is, almost since Day One, the insulation has been
a pain," said Seymour Himmel, a retired
NASA executive who served two decades on an aerospace safety panel and looked into the potential dangers of the foam. "Pieces
break off,'' Himmel said.
Tiles: What are they made of and what do they do?
Columbia's aluminum skin was covered with more than 20,000 heat-
resistant tiles. They protect the craft
against temperatures that can
reach 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit on the leading edge of a wing during
Several have been damaged in past shuttle flights and later replaced.
Some of the tiles are made of silica
fibers, derived from sand in a
process similar to making glass.
Much of the Columbia investigation centers around critical reinforced
carbon-carbon (RCC) panels on the forward
edge of Columbia's left
wing. The gray, U-shaped RCC panels are bolted in four places to a
flat area on the front of
the wing structure. Reinforced carbon-
carbon is a manmade composite material that binds carbon-based
other carbon-based material in a molecular structure
designed to withstand re-entry's hottest temperatures, which can
3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The shuttle's nose cap and a "chin panel" forward of the nose landing gear are made of the RCC material.
Some news reports have called these RCC panels brittle. Composites in
general can be considered brittle,
but not in the same sense as
uncooked noodles or grandma's bones. You couldn't go up to an RCC
panel and snap it in
two. They are built to be tough -- but they have
had minor surface defects from time to time that have required some
-- SPACE.com's Jim Banke contributed to this answer
If NASA knew something might have been wrong, why did they try the re-entry?
People wonder why the astronauts did not do a spacewalk to fix the
problem before trying to return to Earth.
NASA engineers scrutinized
launch video and determined there was nothing to be overly concerned about. They did not know
if heat tiles were missing but made the decision that the craft was safe. Subsequent decisions (including not requesting special
photographs) were made with this in mind.
At any rate, in this situation, a useful spacewalk would have been
particularly dangerous. There is nothing
to hold onto underneath the
wing, where the possible damage was, and the astronauts did not have jetpacks aboard. In any
case, no spare tiles are carried aboard
Could the damage have been investigated with satellites? Perhaps, but
that was tried during a 1998 mission
and the pictures were of little
Could the Columbia astronauts have gone to the orbiting International
Space Station? No. Because Columbia
was in a lower orbit than the
ISS -- one designed for the shuttle's science mission -- it didn't
have enough fuel to
boost itself up to the ISS.
Could another shuttle have been sent up? Shuttle Atlantis might have
been rushed into service, and if
normal testing were skipped, it
might have been in space in a week or so. The Columbia crew had
enough supplies to last
through Wednesday, Feb. 5 and might have been able to stretch those supplies a few more days.
What about the robotic arm? Columbia was not equipped with its 50-
foot robot arm because it was not
needed for this science-based
Will human spaceflight continue?
Almost certainly. In fact, an eventual human mission to Mars is
strongly indicated in the newly announced
NASA budget for 2004 and in a NASA statement made Feb. 5, just four days after the disaster.
Shuttle flights could resume this fall. On March 12, William Readdy,
NASA associate administrator for space
flight, signed a memorandum
establishing a formal "Return to Flight" team. NASA Administrator
Sean O'Keefe indicated
that while the cause of the Columbia disaster
needs to be determined for flights start again, the agency needs to
preparing for the next launch, which could come this fall. The
Return to Flight team will look at possible ways to improve
based on several scenarios now being considered as possible causes of the disaster. Clearly, some measures might
prove warranted, while
others would perhaps become moot depending on the outcome of the
Amid their grief, space officials inside and outside NASA who have
spoken about the disaster have expressed
the need to press ahead.
This is not the first space accident, and unfortunately it probably
will not be the last, but
spaceflight is an important component in
advancing modern science and technology, they say.
Further, there is a strong underlying sentiment among people
connected with the space program which holds
that the collective
human spirit needs to continue pushing the boundaries of exploration
with an ultimate goal of loosening
our ties to this planet. Teachers
will continue to participate in NASA space flights, too, officials
said in the days
following the disaster. Even the grieving families
of the astronauts said "the bold exploration of space must go on."
But it will not be easy to start up again. The next shuttle mission
to the space station had been slated
for March 1 but is now on hold.
Japan, one of several international partners on the space station,
echoed NASA in saying
its astronauts will not fly until the shuttle
fleet is determined safe.
Will shuttles be upgraded or scuttled?
It seems unlikely the existing shuttles will be scuttled. NASA began
preparing, in fact, for the next flight
(as of March 12) while
awaiting a green light and, probably, a determination of the cause of
the Columbia disaster.
Coincidentally, on Feb. 3, two days after the
disaster, NASA unveiled its budget request for 2004, an announcement
had been planned for weeks. The budget request was mapped out with White House assistance. It calls for increased spending
shuttle upgrades with an eye toward keeping them operational until
Some space experts have called for a new generation of space planes
to be designed and built to replace the
aged shuttle fleet. No one
knows if the budget request will stand in the wake of the Columbia
disaster, so all of this
is very up in the air for the moment.
What was Columbia's Mission?
Unlike most shuttle missions during the past three years that have
been devoted to building and supplying
the International Space
Station, STS-107 was purely dedicated to science and did not travel
to the space station. More
than six dozen experiments were being
conducted. Some were a complete loss. The data from many, however, were beamed to
Earth. Scientists said the results will lead to
improved human health and save lives.
What is the status of the International Space Station (ISS) and its
(And doesn't the station need periodic boosts?)
The crew is safe. But eventually astronauts Ken Bowersox and Don
Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin must
be retrieved, and the best
way to do that is with a shuttle. On Sunday, Feb. 2, a previously
planned launch of an unmanned
Russian supply ship, called Progress,
went off as scheduled. It docked with the station two day later and
crew unloaded one ton of food, fuel and other supplies.
They crew now has enough supplies to last through late June. The
earliest they would likely come home is
early May after a fresh Soyuz
spacecraft is launched with a new crew. But the crew says they are
prepared to stay a
year if needed. A shuttle launch had been
scheduled for March 1 to swap ISS crews, but that is on hold. NASA
decide if and when it is safe to launch another shuttle.
Aboard the ISS are.
If need by, the station crew could return in a Russian Soyuz,
a "lifeboat" capsule that is always affixed
to the orbiting outpost.
NASA space station official Michael Kostelnik said that a fresh Soyuz
would be sent to the
station in April as planned. If needed, the
Soyuz ships could swap crews until NASA's shuttle fleet is certified
Doesn't the station need periodic boosts? Yes, sometimes by a dozen
miles or so. Otherwise it would eventually
fall to Earth. You might
recall that Skylab burned up in the atmosphere on July 11, 1979 after
its orbit deteriorated
for 5 years. The Compton telescope and the
Russian Mir space station met similar fates. The Hubble Space
no onboard boosters and is lifted back into higher
orbit during shuttle servicing missions. The ISS boosts can be
by shuttles and the Russian Progress supply ships. The
station was boosted Feb. 11 or 12. The next boost would come probably
in or around June. Progress supply ships always bring fuel and do the reboosts. Shuttle can too. -- SPACE.com's Jim Banke
contributed to this answer.
Meanwhile, NASA said on Feb. 12 that science experiment aboard the
station continue. Basic and applied research
is being conducted in
biology, physics, chemistry, ecology, medicine, materials science,
manufacturing and the long-term
effects of space flight on humans.
And on Feb. 14, a report said the United States and Russia would
cooperate to keep
the station going. Russian officials said they
would build extra $22 million supply ships as long as othr partners
the 16-nation space station project would pay for them.
What should I do if I find Columbia debris?
Debris presumed to be from the shuttle Columbia landed in the
driveway of Susie and Art Patterson's home
in Nacogdoches, Texas. It
is about a foot long.
NASA and the indpenedent investigation board are both interested in
obtaining pictures and videos of the
event. The Gehman Board has a
Web site, http://www.caib.us/, for information about the board's
activities and to learn how to contact the board directly if you have
reports to make, or theories to offer.
You can also report debris or images to NASA at this phone number:
281-483-3388 or (936) 699-1032. Text reports
and images should be e-mailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Do not touch any debris you find. NASA officials have warned
repeatedly that the debris "may be dangerously
toxic substances and cause serious injury if handled. Individuals who
think they may have come in
contact with shuttle debris should take a
shower with soap and water and then seek medical attention.
NASA: "Individuals are advised to avoid all additional contact with
the suspected shuttle material. Clothing
that may have come in
contact with the suspected debris should be removed with care to
avoid skin contact with cloth
that may have been contaminated. Place
the clothing in a plastic bag for later analysis. If your physician
has any questions,
please have him or her contact the NASA Emergency Action Center at 281-483-3388."
Also dangerous are pyrotechnic devices that the shuttle carries and
which may remain unexploded.
NASA wishes all debris be reported to them, so that the pieces can be
used to help determine what caused
the disaster. The space agency
also warns that the debris is government property, and local law
have been asked to aid in recovering it.
In fact, two Texans were arrested on federal charges they stole
pieces of the debris and a Texas law enforcement
official was charged
in a separate case.
What is being done for the astronauts' families? And how can I send
A fund is being set up. The Space Shuttle Children's Trust Fund was
established with the support of NASA
after the 1986 Challenger
disaster. The fund, which raised $1 million, will now work to raise
money for Columbia families.
NASA held a private memorial for the astronauts Feb. 4 at the Johnson
Space Center. President Bush and the
first lady Laura Bush were
accompanied on Air Force One by Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut
to walk on the moon.
Former senator and astronaut John Glenn and his
wife, Annie, also attended, as did NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.
Scobee Fulgham, whose father died on the space shuttle
Challenger, was to speak to the children of the Columbia astronauts
A memorial ceremony for Columbia's astronauts was held Feb. 7 at the
Kennedy Space Center. Florida Governor
Jeb Bush, Administrator
O'Keefe and former astronaut Robert Crippen, Columbia's first pilot
on its maiden flight, STS-1,
on April 12, 1981, attended.
Could Columbia have been hit by an electrical discharge?
This should be considered highly speculative. A report last week in
The San Francisco Chronicle says federal
investigators (not the NASA
team) are looking into this possibility. Data are being reviewed for
evidence any high-altitude
jets or sprites, which commonly occur
above thunderstorms and are known to shoot nearly into outer
space. "We're working
hard on the data set," said Alfred Bedard, a
scientist at the federal Environmental Technology Laboratory in
Colo. The lab is providing data to NASA, according to the
The Chron says NASA administrators confirmed that a photograph
showing an odd streak of light, taken by a
San Francisco amateur
astronomer, is being evaluated by Columbia crash investigators.
Shuttle investigators are not
certain if the oddity is real or an
How did so much debris survive re-entry heat and make it to the
Meteors often burn up before they reach the ground. But many survive.
What happens depends on many factors:
Meteors are not typically in orbit around the planet. They come from
elsewhere in the solar system and crash
into our atmosphere at
incredible velocities. The shuttle was traveling at about 12,500 mph.
A meteor can reach speeds
of 160,000 mph (72 kilometers per second)
relative to Earth (many move at about half that speed).
The heating that can
lead to vaporization of a meteor begins around
60 miles up. The shuttle was already down to around 40 miles altitude
Meteors larger than baseballs frequently survive. Columbia's wreckage
involved a lot of good-sized pieces.
Finally, natural meteors are hunks of stone and metal, often very
loose agglomerations with surface roughness
that enhances the
tendency to vaporize. Columbia's parts were designed for strength and
stability and were often smooth.
Could the Hubble Space Telescope have taken pictures of the shuttle?
No. Hubble is not equipped for the task
of imaging a moving target.
And it is so powerful that to image the entire Moon would require 130
[See what I mean in this Moon photo gallery]
Could the flight have been aborted before the shuttle entered outer
In theory, yes. The shuttle can abort and land before it reaches
orbit. But NASA did not suspect there was
a problem until after the
craft was in orbit and the launch video was reviewed (and then
officials determined there
was no problem). Once in orbit, returning
earlier would likely have yielded the same result, assuming the
in fact been done during launch, though it has not been
determined for whether the damage, in part or total, occured during
in flight, or at re-entry.
Does the shuttle come back to Earth on the same path each time?
No. This mission involved a relatively low orbit. Missions to the
International Space Station go higher,
and due to the different
orbit, those shuttles typically come back to Earth over Mexico and
the open waters of the Gulf.
Were puffs of smoke in the contrail signs of an explosion or a result
of the structure falling apart?
The puffs are almost surely telltale of something. But NASA has not
yet determined what sorts of debris caused
the earliest puffs seen in
video, nor what specific process led to things falling apart. An
amateur video shows what
may be some of the earliest signs of
problems over Reno, Nevada.
Was Columbia landing at the time that was scheduled at the outset of
Yes. Everything was going according to plan, and officials have said
this seemed like one of the smoothest
missions ever, up to the point
of the disaster. Everyone in the space community was surprised to
lose a shuttle upon
re-entry; launch is considered the more dangerous
event by far.
Can the external fuel tank be recovered and studied?
No. The external fuel tank (called ET by NASA) stays with the shuttle
until about 9 minutes after launch.
It then separates, falls back,
and burns up as it comes through the atmosphere. This has confused
some people because
another part of the launch system is retrieved.
Solid rocket boosters (SRBs), which provide most of the thrust for
detach about 28 miles (45 kilometers) up while the shuttle's
main engines continue firing. The SRBs fall into the ocean
Canaveral and are picked up, refurbished and re-used.