We will not be held down

Carrot River - Tuesday, February 4, 2003 by: Kevin McIntyre

Whatever it was that struck the underside of the left wing deflected in a significant spray. At the time after launch NASA engineers disregarded the impact as not significant. Upon reentry sensors in that wing reported spiking temperatures, a failure in hydraulics, a failure in the tire then the sensors themselves stopped working. Ground telemetry reported the vehicle pitching left then the computers tried compensating attempting to bring the vehicle rightward. Shortly thereafter, Columbia began to disintegrate. At speeds of Mach 6 and above such movements would severely stress the airframe.

At any point was this preventable? By and large the answer is no.

A friend of mine is an engineer who spent many years at The Cape working under contract for NASA. A lot of his favorite projects were installed on the shuttle fleet, notably on Columbia. I called and asked him straight out, what is the turn around time to get a bird in the air? To simply fuel it and erect it at the launch pad: two weeks. Throw in triple shifts and all the overtime they could handle, cut that by a factor of three or four. Columbia had 16 days in orbit. Had the situation been properly addressed the crew would be saved - the orbiter however would never return to earth.

Armchair Quarterbacking here is purely an act of futility.

Columbia did not have sufficient fuel to reach the space station. Even if it did it was the only vehicle in the fleet not equipped to dock with the station. On this trip Columbia was not even outfitted with the Canada Arm to extend a camera under the vehicle for inspection. All parties involved had no evidence to base a decision on. One option would be an inspection / rescue flight. Another would have been Abort Launch to the landing site in Spain - a procedure that has never been practiced.

My guess at this point is enough shielding tiles were damaged to allow the excessive heat of reentry to cause structural failure. NASA may believe that as well, they now need conclusive proof and plan for that future scenario. The Shuttle will fly again. It has to: it's in our nature. The explorers who stepped off Christopher Columbus's weren't content, their descendants pressed west across the Rockies. They got to the New World by standing on the European Coast and wondering what was beyond. Their forefathers stood at the entrances to their caves - and wondered what was beyond.

We look into the night sky and wonder what is beyond: we are an inquisitive bunch and we will not be held down.


Kevin McIntyre



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