Last Friday while most people were on their way home or to a friends for Pacing Break I stayed behind for a lecture from a NASA scientist who played and essential role in the Columbia investigation. For those who are rusty on their NASA disaster history, Columbia was the shuttle that exploded over Texas on re-entry in 2003. In this lecture the speaker gave us a crash course in shuttle design highlighting specific areas of the craft that he later discovered were involved in the accident. Then he moved into the accident and what his team was in charge of investigating.
He explained that the explosion was caused by a severe piece of damage on the left leading edge of the wing that lead to catastrophic failure under the intense forces experienced during re-entry. On lift-off a piece of foam fell off of the main fuel tank (the big orange one). This piece of foam then impacted the left leading edge of the wing. Initially it was thought that this didn’t cause any kind of damage seeing as how the foam hit the carbon composite panels that make up the leading edge of the wing. The carbon composite panels were incredibly strong (for $1,000,000 each they better be) so it was thought that the foam merely disintegrated upon impact. After the investigation revealed that there must’ve been some kind of hole in the left wing they thought it was possible that the foam was capable of causing the damage.
The speaker worked for NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio. His team was then put in charge of doing all sorts of collision tests with different kinds of debris and various parts of the shuttle. When they tested the foam against the carbon panel it had punched a hole clean through it. The piece of foam weighed the same as a piece of paper and struck the panel with a glancing blow and it still had enough kinetic energy to break one of the toughest materials mankind could make.
All in all it was an awesome lecture. We got to see footage of impact tests that you simply can’t find online, even if you read the report. It gave us a really unique,close up view of what it would’ve been like to work NASA on the investigation. By far, it was the most interesting lecture I’ve been too. I’m very glad a stayed an extra day for it.