Dear NASA ... rev 07.29.2005 Back to plusaf's Home Page

From the New York Times, June 28th, 2003:

NASA told the panel that astronauts could have stuffed heat-resistant materials into the hole, and perhaps a water bag, which would have frozen solid. They then could have covered the gap with "some Teflon tape or something like that," said Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., chairman of the investigation board, in a briefing with reporters on May 23.

Investigators recently concluded that the left wing came apart where it was damaged by the foam.

The idea of a repair was reminiscent of the one for Apollo 13 devised by engineers on the ground in 1971. It included using adhesive tape and pages from manuals rolled into tubes as air conduits. But it was not clear whether any materials available on the Columbia would have saved the ship.

The heat-resistant tiles are probably not replaceable in orbit because they are not standard sizes, and the same may be true of the reinforced carbon-carbon panels that make up the leading edges of the wings and the nose. As a result, any repair is likely to involve a patch, experts say.

"The difficulty with patches is being able to find a material that's suitable," said Ms. Motichek, the NASA spokeswoman. "How are you going to shape it, to make it adhere and to do all this on orbit?"

The accident board also said today, without making a formal recommendation, that NASA should work on replacing the tiles, panels and possibly other parts in the three remaining shuttles with less brittle materials. NASA chose materials for the shuttle with a balance of thermal protection, durability and weight, and materials that are more resistant to damage would probably be heavier.

The board issued its first two recommendations on April 17: that NASA develop better ways to inspect shuttles between flights for damage that may not be apparent, and that it develop a better system for obtaining images of the shuttle while it is in orbit. Those two were also discussed with NASA long before the recommendations were actually issued.

First, Admiral Gehman, were you drunk or something, when you said that?! There is no way in hell that any solution like that would stand up to the heat of reentry, and you should not have made any such suggestion without some conference with engineers.

Now, here's my suggestion:

Add protective coverings to the shuttle during takeoff which can be removed by spacewalking astronauts in orbit or blown off the shuttle after the boosters and the propellant tank have separated from the shuttle. Those have been the sources of damage, as pretty much everyone agrees. Keeping the wing and underbelly intact until orbit is probably the most cost-effective way to prevent reentry disasters, because, as the article correctly concludes, there ain't no way in hell you are gonna be able to do in-orbit repairs to such a complex system as the shuttle. However, if you can prevent damage during ascent, you don't need those kinds of major repairs.

Finally, in-orbit repairs could then be aimed at things like micrometeor holes or pitting that might compromise the skin of the vehicle during reentry, and those are tiny holes and probably repairable or patchable with tools that can be carried on board.


Thank you, Josh in Seattle, for getting me to rethink this issue.... from my email reply to him,

In retrospect, I'd bet that a "protective covering" would be more expensive or too heavy to be a good solution. After watching the news reports recently and seeing the new photos, I think the NASA engineers are, at least from what the media portray, not looking in the right direction: none of the interviews shows anyone at NASA saying something like, "doggone it, we've got to do something to that insulation to get it to not break off AT ALL"

Redesigning the shuttle to withstand impacts that shouldn't be there in the first place is absolutely the wrong way to go.

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