Saturday, February 22, 2003 (Washington)
Columbia struck by three chunks of foam
The space shuttle Columbia may have been struck by as many as three large chunks of foam that smashed against delicate insulating tiles as it took off, not just the one noted previously, according to an internal analysis disclosed by NASA.
The report by employees at The Boeing Co., a contractor, revealed that cameras saw three large pieces of debris, each up to 20 inches long, that shattered into a shower of particles after striking Columbia along its left wing. The report, among those supporting Boeing's assurances to NASA that Columbia could return safely, was dated eight days before the spacecraft broke apart Feb.1 over Texas.
Earlier Boeing reports during Columbia's flight had focused on possible damage from "a large piece of debris," also about 20 inches.
Senior NASA officials have steadfastly supported Boeing's conclusions since the accident that Columbia was expected to be able to return safely.
NASA yesterday released three reports analyzing possible damage to Columbia's insulating tiles. News organizations had previously obtained two of these. The third, dated Jan. 24, indicated the highest risk of damage was along the leading edge of Columbia's left wing, based on the speed and on the angle of the strike as the shuttle roared skyward.
The accident board investigating the disaster has said previously that Columbia almost certainly suffered a devastating breach along its wing and possibly its wheel compartment that allowed searing air to seep inside the shuttle during its fiery descent at nearly 12,500 mph.
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