The Foam Strike

Columbia‘s launch on January 16, 2003 appeared to be smooth and uneventful. The shuttle reached orbit as planned and the crew immediately began preparing to operate the experiments in the Spacehab double module in the payload bay.

Later in the day, the imagery analysis team began analyzing the films from the tracking cameras that monitored Columbia‘s ascent. One of the cameras had not worked at all, and another was out of focus. However, another camera showed what appeared to be a large chunk of foam falling off the external tank and impacting the orbiter’s left wing 81.7 seconds into the flight.

Ann Micklos represented the thermal protection system team during the first viewing of the launch films. She said, “People’s jaws dropped. You could have heard a pin drop when we saw the foam strike. We watched it again and again and again.”

No one could tell whether underside of the wing or the wing’s leading edge bore the brunt of the impact. No one had ever seen such a large piece of foam hit the orbiter before.

The nearest precedent was ironically only four months earlier, on the launch of STS-112 in October 2002. When the reusable solid rocket boosters were towed to port after their retrieval from the Atlantic, someone noticed a large dent in the metal ring that attached the left booster to the external tank. What caused that?

Analysts examined the images taken of the ET took when Atlantis jettisoned the tank. A piece of insulating foam the size of a laser printer cartridge box had broken off of the external tank at the left bipod ramp—the structure that attaches the orbiter’s nose to the tank. The foam impacted the attachment ring at a relative speed of about 500 mph and created a deep dent in the solid metal.

sts-112-foam-loss
Photo of missing foam on the external tank of STS-112. Columbia‘s ET shed a larger piece of foam from the same area. (NASA photo)

The STS-112 impact was mentioned in the flight readiness review for the next mission— STS-113—but it was not classified as a safety of flight issue. “More than 100 External Tanks have flown with only 3 documented instances of significant foam loss on a bipod ramp,” the report said. Without a deep and thorough discussion of the issue and possible ramifications, the reviewers cleared the tank was cleared to fly “as-is.”

The issue was not even discussed at the flight readiness review for STS-107.

It was an example of the normalization of deviance attitude that had doomed Challenger and had now become part of NASA’s culture once again. In essence, managers felt that although foam loss was not meeting specifications, it had never caused a significant problem before. Therefore, it was safe to continue flying.

Now, a piece almost twice that size of the one that damaged STS-112’s booster had broken off of Columbia‘s tank and hit the shuttle’s wing.

In their briefing to the Mission Management Team on January 17, the day after the launch, the video analysis team noted that the strike had occurred. However, since there were so many unknowns, the issue was sent back for further study. The meeting minutes did not even mention the foam strike.

…from the crew perspective this was a good launch and there were no issues to report…The launch film revealed no significant items.

The next MMT meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, January 21.

Next time: Imagery in orbit

Author: Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward is an author of books on the history of American manned spaceflight. He also serves as an adjunct executive coach at the Center for Creative Leadership.

4 thoughts on “The Foam Strike”

  1. When I read the words “normalization of deviance” it makes me shudder. I understand how that can and does manifest itself in individuals (myself included), and institutions. It surely is a good practice to ask the question, “am I approachable”?

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    1. Great point, Ted. It’s hard to judge how honest and direct people are willing to be with us. You can feel you’re the most approachable person in the world, but all kinds of factors like relative power, Government vs contractor, contractor competitiveness, schedule pressure, etc. and suddenly it’s much more complicated. No one wants to be the person who causes a huge disruption only to find out that he was mistaken. I like your approach of starting the questioning with yourself. If no one is challenging me in meetings or pushing back when I propose something, it should make me stop and think about what’s going on.

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      1. Thank you for those insights Jonathan. People are complex beings, as are the daily life situations we encounter. Very seldom is something as simple as we may wish to perceive it. Looking forward to additional posts and the forthcoming book.

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  2. Most of the technicians who worked on Columbia, including myself, couldn’t believe the MMT were not concerned. We knew it would be catastrophic, but our concerns was ignored. It was a sad situation. God bless their families.

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