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.

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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

Launch Day

The launch day for Columbia and the STS-107 mission finally arrived on January 16, 2003. The mission had been rescheduled 13 times since NASA first announced it in 1999.

Commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, payload commander Mike Anderson, mission specialists Kalpana “KC” Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Dave Brown, and payload specialist Ilan Ramon had been training together as a team for several years. The mission delays, while frustrating, gave them time to bond even more closely as a family. They were ready to fly.

This was Bob Cabana’s first mission as the head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate, and he was happy to be with his friends on the 107 crew as they suited up in the Operations and Checkout Building. Astronauts Kent “Rommel” Rominger (chief astronaut) and Jerry Ross (heading the Vehicle Integration Test Office) were also on hand on this joyous occasion. Robert Hanley from the Vehicle Integration Test Team taped the proceedings with Dave Brown’s video camera. Brown had been compiling a video documentary of the crew’s training and time together.

Before they exited the O&C Building for their ride to the launch pad, Husband gathered his crew in a circle for a moment of prayer. He recited the verses of Joshua 1:6-9, concluding with, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

The ebullient crew strode out of the O&C Building. Husband and McCool reached over their heads and patted the door frame in yet another launch day tradition.

Crew walkout for STS107Credit; Scott Andrews/NASA
The STS-107 crew and their entourage leave the O&C Building. (NASA photo KSC-03PD-0109)

The Astrovan stopped at a checkpoint near the VAB. Rominger left to fly the Shuttle Training Aircraft to check on conditions aloft in case the crew needed to fly an abort that would return them to the Shuttle Landing Facility. Cabana, Ross, Hanley, and the flight surgeon left to go to the launch control center. The surgeon went to man the medical console in the firing room. Cabana, Ross, and Hanley joined the crew’s families.

At the launch pad, the closeout crew strapped in the crew and said their goodbyes. The crew went through the pre-launch checklist. Everything looked to be in great shape.

The countdown proceeded smoothly. There was a scare just before the count came out of the final T minus 9 minute hold. An unidentified blip appeared on the radar—something that appeared to be headed toward the launch pad. With security at its highest point for any shuttle launch and an Israeli astronaut on board, Mike Leinbach came as close as he ever had to telling the crew to punch out. However, the issue cleared up in time for the count to resume. (This situation is described in much more detail in our upcoming book.)

Leinbach got on the comm loop with the crew: “If there ever was a time to use the phrase, ‘Good things come to people who wait’, this is the one time. From the many, many people who put this mission together: Good luck and Godspeed.”

Husband replied, “We appreciate it, Mike. The Lord has blessed us with a beautiful day here, and we’re going to have a great mission. We’re ready to go.”

A few seconds before 10:39 a.m., Columbia’s three main engines ignited. The ship “twanged’—rocked forward by the off-center impulse—and then returned to a vertical position. At that instant, the solid rocket boosters ignited, explosive bolts were fired, and Columbia roared off into a beautiful blue sky.

It was the last time anyone at KSC would see her as an intact vehicle.

Next: The foam strike

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Columbia blasts off on her final mission, January 16, 2003. (NASA photo KSC-03PD-0116)