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.