January 15, 2006

Intelligence Briefing:
Revolution & Terrorism

The Foam That Ate the Space Shuttle?

Part 2: A Rigged Investigation
– Continued from Part 1 –

Shuttle debris examination
Ignoring the Evidence: Columbia debris recovery
If terrorism destroyed Columbia during its reentry into Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003, the fatal blow came from within the shuttle itself — a bomb or other sabotage.

But from the outset the official investigation board, thrown together by outside political forces and headed by non-NASA figures with limited relevant experience, pushed away from any such possibility. That meant they had to blame the incident on some factor acting on the shuttle from the outside.

There wasn’t much to work with. In more than 100 flights over two decades, the program’s five shuttles had provided considerable engineering experience. Every single flight had returned with damage: hundreds of gouges and pock marks, holes, missing heat-shield tiles. None of it had ever come close to threatening the orbiters.

The board’s investigators could find evidence of only one notable external event. Video footage showed a modest piece of light foam falling off the fuel tank and possibly striking the shuttle’s left side during launch. That, too, wasn’t exactly an unusual occurrence; most shuttle flights lost chunks of foam, several of which hit the craft without incident. But lacking any better alternative, the board quickly seized on the foam hypothesis to steer clear of investigating terrorism. Almost from the beginning of the inquiry, board members ignored everything but the minor bits of evidence that could be interpreted as if the foam had hit Columbia’s left wing and that the wing alone had sustained all the damage. Any other evidence would immediately end that hypothesis, and was therefore sidelined.

The board, however, faced the problem that a thorough investigation of any potential foam danger had already been done. While Columbia was still orbiting in space during late January, engineers from NASA and Boeing Co. carefully examined the issue just to make sure the shuttle was in no danger before reentry. Drawing upon the video record, shuttle blueprints, and powerful computers to caculate every possible scenario according to the laws of physics, the engineers concluded that the foam must have struck the heat-resistant tiles on the shuttle’s underbelly.1 “Under two worst-case scenarios, NASA investigators [said], the [foam] insulation either would have destroyed a single heat-resistant tile near the landing gear door or caused damage to a 32-by-7-inch patch of tiles along the shuttle fuselage.”2 Either way, the engineers unanimously agreed there was nothing to worry about. “Even if the foam insulation had caused ‘significant’ damage, the crew would have a ‘safe return,’” they reported.3

Even after the disaster, the engineers remained confident of their analysis. “Some engineers do not believe that any scenario would have been destructive enough to cause Columbia to crash,” one news report reluctantly admitted (“some engineers” was the euphemism used by the reporters for all expert engineers involved in the program).4 Within weeks, tests of foam striking heat-shield tiles were proving the engineers right; as expected, the tiles were not seriously damaged.5

Shuttle debris identification
Catalogued and Shelved: Sorting out the pieces
Seeing a dead end, the official investigative board re-interpreted the video footage to propose that the foam had somehow flown away from the fuel tank and instead struck the wing’s front. That leading edge had no tiles, thus allowing at least speculation that the foam could have done more damage. The story was rewritten to suggest that the foam “sideswiped”6 the left wing’s front panel 6, the closest to the fuselage that could possibly be hit and damaged — and which, conveniently, was not recovered amongst shuttle debris, so there would be no way to check the new hypothesis directly.7

The testing began with equivalently sized foam pieces, fired from large gas guns to duplicate the conditions in which the insulation struck Columbia, and aimed at mock-ups of the wing’s leading edge. The speed was edged up to 530 mph and the foam was aimed more directly at the leading edge, at a sharper angle than the shuttle experienced. The results were still disappointing. One test slightly displaced the panel; others created 3 to 5-inch cracks. Six tests over several weeks showed nothing serious enough to make the point.8

So again the story changed. The frustrated board members reworked and eliminated data until they announced that the foam had instead taken a stroll in mid-air in an odd direction, striking not panel 6, but panel 8, located further away from the shuttle body — and, also conveniently, a bit more fragile in construction. They repeated the gas-gun test, squeezing the speed up another notch and turning the foam chunk so that an entire edge would strike the mock-up panel with greater force. This time the impact did produce a hole, 16 inches in diameter.9 Not wanting to look a gift horse too closely in the mouth, the board instantly declared the case closed and stopped all further testing.

Yet even if the foam did manage to wander sideways and backward, striking panel 8 and leaving a hole — none of which the testing proved — that only creates more questions than it answers:

  • The left wing’s leading edge panel 8 was recovered. News reports mention no hole as predicted by the air-gun tests, but rather burned edges.10 Even this damage may have taken place after the shuttle disintegrated, as the pieces burned while racing through the atmosphere.11
  • Moments before Columbia blew apart, it encountered aerodynamic forces trying to make the craft swing out of control. Even a large hole in any leading-edge wing panel could not explain this; at least “five or six panels” would have to be totally missing to generate such forces.12
  • The foam hypothesis would require a wing hole large enough to let in plasma gases, thousands of degrees in temperature, quickly enough to melt through the aluminum spar inside the wing in just three minutes.13 Yet the wing’s internal sensors in the nearby wheel well rose only about 30 degrees before the shuttle was destroyed. “Those temperature spikes are not severe enough in and of themselves to have caused the shuttle’s demise,” according to NASA engineers.14
  • Most or all space shuttles have returned from missions missing heat-resistant tiles, leaving their metal skin exposed to the hot plasma gases, yet never did the heat melt through the skin or damage the shuttles. More strikingly, shuttles consistently developed pinholes and voids in their wings’ leading edges, and “on six prior shuttle flights, orbiters returned with their leading edges damaged by debris, micrometeroids or other causes” — precisely the type of damage that supposedly destroyed Columbia, yet all previous shuttle missions landed safely without internal damage.15
  • During the May 2000 mission of shuttle Atlantis, its wing actually did develop a leak and hot plasma gases entered, exactly as the investigative board is proposing happened to Columbia. But the shuttle remained perfectly intact, the damage was minimal and quickly repaired, and Atlantis was back in space only four months later.16 That would seem to prove that even the investigative board’s worst-case scenario could not have destroyed Columbia.

The discrediting of the foam hypothesis re-opens the question of whether an internal catastrophic event destroyed Columbia, a sign of possible terrorism. It also raises red flags about the real agenda of the board members charged with handling the investigation.

– Continued in Part 3 –


1. Vartabedian, R., “NASA focuses in on shuttle’s leading edge,” Los Angeles Times, March 27, 2003, p. A18; Vartabedian, R., “Report likely to say NASA minimized foam peril,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 26, 2003, pp. A1, A16.

2. Gold, S. & Vartabedian, R., “NASA considering space hit,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 5, 2003, pp. A1, A19.

3. Gold, S. & Vartabedian, R., “Breach in shuttle suspected,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 14, 2003, pp. A1, A22.

4. Gold, S. & Vartabedian, R., “NASA considering space hit,” Op cit.

5. Vartabedian, R., “Tests shed light on Columbia damage,” Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2003, p. A20.

6. Associated Press, “Foam theory is bolstered by shuttle data,” Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2003, p. A19.

7. Vartabedian, R., “NASA focuses in on shuttle’s leading edge,” Op cit.

8. Associated Press, “Foam test bolsters shuttle theory,” Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2003, p. A39; Vartabedian, R., “Foam test shows impact doomed Columbia,” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 2003, pp. A1, A20-21; Alonso-Zaldivar, R. & Vartabedian, R., “Two more shuttle safety defects cited,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2003, p. A20.

9. Hart, L. & Vartabedian, R., “Shuttle’s ‘smoking gun’ seen,” Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2003, pp. A1, A16.

10. Vartabedian, R., “Near proof of shuttle’s fatal flaw,” Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2003, pp. A1, A19.

11. Gold, S. & Vartabedian, R., “Heat damage found on shuttle wing section may be key clue,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 28, 2003, p. A23.

12. Vartabedian, R. & Pae, P., “Clues point to shuttle wing edge,” Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2003, pp. A1, A32; Vartabedian, R., “NASA focuses in on shuttle’s leading edge,” Op cit.

13. Vartabedian, R., “Near proof of shuttle’s fatal flaw,” Op cit.

14. Gold, S. & Vartabedian, R., “Breach in shuttle suspected,” Op cit.

15. Vartabedian, R. & Pae, P., “Shuttle investigators look at possibility of weakened wing,” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2003, p. A16.

16. Associated Press, “Gases breached wing of Atlantis,” Los Angeles Times, July 9, 2003, p. A21.