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Political Expediency Propels Columbia Disaster Investigation

YOWUSA.COM, 03-August-03
Larry Park and Steve Russell

ColumbiaThe Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) plans to release its final report within the next few weeks.  In it, the board will undoubtedly conclude that the most probable cause of the accident was falling foam.  We will show that the CAIB's original line of investigation was pointing to something puzzling in the atmosphere during reentry.  It seems that once they realized the road this would take them on, they shifted their focus primarily to falling foam.  The result is that NASA will put new safety procedures into place to guard against foam, and the shuttle will continue to fly. However, science has paid the price, and the window of opportunity to gain more knowledge of the scientists jokingly refer to as the "ignorosphere" (because they know so little about it) and its interaction with Earth's energies is rapidly closing.

The Fix Is Already In

The goal of the CAIB is to get the shuttle flying again. To do that, NASA spinmeisters need to feed the public a smoking gun for dummies.  This is because the International Space Station (ISS), like a parked cab, still has the meter running.

NASA, 29-July-2003
Heads of Agency Final Joint Statement

Space agency leaders from the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan and Russia met today in Monterey California, to review the status of cooperation on the International Space Station (ISS) Program.

The Heads of Agency were briefed on the preliminary recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and NASA's plans for the return to flight of the U.S. Space Shuttle. They agreed to review and update the ISS Program Action Plan, adopted in December 2002, in order to realize the objectives of the ISS Program as soon as possible. The HOA agreed that the ISS Program Action Plan should remain the basis for proceeding with selection of an ISS configuration. The HOA also agreed to meet again in Moscow in mid-October to discuss specific ISS implementation plans taking into account NASA's Return to Flight activities.

The Partners expressed great enthusiasm for NASA's Return to Flight and the timely resumption of ISS assembly and opportunities for enhanced utilization of this world-class research facility.

Obviously, our government has vastly improved it's political crisis management techniques since the days of the Challenger disaster.  However, where politics and science meet, there will always be problems . The political undercurrent of the CAIB investigation reflects these problems.  It has been raising eyebrows in the public domain from the early days of its inception, beginning with the payments of board members.

Orlando Sentinel, May 11, 2003
Board paid to ensure secrecy

The agency quietly put the five civilians on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration payroll, at pay rates of $134,000 a year, in order to take advantage of provisions that allow boards composed exclusively of "federal employees" to conduct their business in secret.

In fact, no one has accused the board of pulling its punches and members of Congress say they have been impressed with the panel's work and openness.  On the other hand, the board has done very little work in public.  It has had 13 media briefings, but only nine public hearings, all of which featured presentations by experts who are asked to "affirm" - but not swear to - their truthfulness.

Political moves such as this left a nagging question of credibility in the minds of many people and kick-started the rumor mill on the internet. A month later, the CAIB faced renewed image issues after the public learned that member Bill Sikora was helping with legal issues such as Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.  The infamous Mr. Sikora was previously reprimanded for a memo he wrote for NASA detailing how to evade the disclosure requirements of the FOIA.

Houston Chronicle, June 20, 2003
Controversial NASA attorney advising Columbia commission

A lawyer who devised ways for NASA to avoid requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act is again working with the agency, this time as legal counsel to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

While there have been several disheartening political decisions lowering public confidence in the CAIB, it would be hasty to conclude that any of the conspiracy theories on the internet have merit.  This investigation and all its inherent problems are simply the result of bad politics.

Orlando Sentinel, June 29, 2003
Politics spawned Columbia mission

"One can certainly use this mission as a way of understanding how the shuttle and NASA have as much to do with politics as science," said John Pike, director of the policy-analysis group GlobalSecurity.org. "Anyone who thinks this is mainly about science hasn't spent much time looking at the space program."

There is a political necessity to get a media-pleasing, senate accepting smoking gun into the public domain so that shuttle missions can continue with any revised safety initiatives the board recommends.  If they do not find a primary cause soon, we will go down the road taken after the Challenger accident, a most lengthy and horribly political waste of time for a solution.

In terms of possible primary causes, the best evidence we have points to falling foam or another related scenario during liftoff, or an atmospheric related scenario during reentry..  Given that scientists refer to the area of atmosphere where the shuttle began its demise as the "ignorosphere," it is no surprise that they have chosen to follow the foam scenario closely.  Scientists understand perfectly about such things as aerodynamics, pressure, gravity and foam densities.  This allows them to perform experiments with predictable outcomes and model scenarios with high-powered computers.

However, if you demand a thorough answer about the mesosphere from any scientist, you will hear nothing but the eerie sound of crickets chirping in the night.  If scientists have trouble understanding this area of research, then there is no way they could convince the public or senate that this could have been a primary cause with the pittance of evidence they have.  Therefore, it seems the political decision to "stick with what you know" has triumphed over improving our science.  This is why the CAIB spent millions of dollars on many tests for only one failure scenario, while ignoring the concerns of other NASA physicists who believe there could have been unstudied atmospheric events during reentry.

While the foam theory is a politically convenient solution to get the shuttle mission and NASA back on their feet quickly, it should not be wholly acceptable to the field of science.  From the public viewpoint at least, it seems there are several inconsistencies with the foam theory.  We should not abandon other possibilities and theories in the long term until we can conduct further studies.

Boundary Layers

By all accounts of information in the public domain, the CAIB have not incorporated wind tunnel tests into their reproduction of the foam strike event.  Reproducing the atmospherics around the shuttle would surely have to rank as one of the most critical elements in accurately determining if a foam strike possessed enough kinetic energy to bring down the shuttle.

Boundary Layers

Spaceflight Now, February 18, 2003
Columbia was shedding debris over West Coast

"When you're flying in this superheated air area, what's forming around the spacecraft itself is actually called a shock front," said board member James Hallock .  "It's creating a boundary layer so it's not that you have a little tiny pinhole, you need something bigger than just a pinhole for something to actually be able to penetrate within that area.

The reason these boundary layers is so critical, is that they act as a buffer or shield that could dampen the impact of the foam strike.  In the CAIB scenario, a small piece of lightweight foam travels ten feet horizontally from the tank, pushes through the airflow, penetrates through the supersonic boundary layer on the wing and strikes the leading edge.  After all this, they predict there is still enough remaining kinetic energy to puncture the required 10-inch hole into the wing. 

Not only could the boundary layer reduce the effects of a foam strike, but also the fact that the foam was spinning complicates the theory even more.

Spinning vs. Bullets

foam damageGiven the foam orientation that video evidence indicates, the spinning effect could have widened the surface area influenced by the boundary airflow on the wing, lessening the impact even more. 

The fact is that the CAIB conducted many tests and struggled to reproduce anything that would be catastrophic to the shuttle.  The only exception to this is the unrealistic conditions of the worst-case scenario test.  The nitrogen ‘cannon shot' of the foam tests are absolute worst-case scenario, concentrating the energy in the narrow direction like a speeding bullet instead of something tumbling out of control. 

Foam is fragile compared with ice, yet a Boeing report shows that a shuttle can even withstand ice impacts.

Boeing, Jan 23, 2003
Orbiter Assessment of STS-107 ET Bipod Insulation Ramp Impact

RCC Predicted Damage at Incidence Angles Greater than 15 Degrees Based on Ice Database




Velocity (fps)

Depth (in.)
















RCC is clearly capable of withstanding impacts of at least 15 degrees...

The attention to foam debris strikes in the CAIB investigation has been overwhelming to say the least.  The question is what evidence does the CAIB have to warrant such scrutiny at the expense of other theories?

A Clean Wing

All the video and photographic evidence in the public domain seems to be inconclusive and provides a window of possibility that the foam struck the wing and created the hole that destroyed the integrity of the left wing.  However, there is one photograph that many people may not have seen.  We have been following this tragedy since February 1, and diligently downloading every available news article we could find on the Internet, and have filled several CD's with valuable information, yet none contained this photograph.

This hard to find photograph of the shuttle indicates that the foam strike event left no visible hole in the left wing.  The team members, themselves, even admitted this.

In early March, the CAIB presented enhancements of a video that clearly shows the impact area of the wing without damage, as clearly pointed out by the CAIB Chairman himself.

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