News

USU eyes NASA Report

Lab will stress details in wake of shuttle probe
By Joe Bauman
Deseret News
August 31, 2003

"Sweat the small stuff."

That's the lettering on the red flag that started to wave in Harry Ames' mind as he read through the Columbia Accident Investigation Report.

The 248-page report, released this past week, concludes that the Feb. 1 accident that killed space shuttle Columbia's seven astronauts resulted from a large piece of insulating foam striking the orbiter.

Foam fell from the area where the shuttle attaches to the external fuel tank, striking the leading edge of the left wing at tremendous speed. The damage was so severe that heat penetrated during re-entry, causing the shuttle to break apart.

"Whenever there's an accident report liked this, or even a failure report in space flight that didn't involve human life, I like to go through them in quite a bit of detail," said Ames, deputy director of Utah State University's Space Dynamics Lab.

SDL has carried out many projects for NASA, including some that were carried on shuttles. In the past, the university was deeply involved with "Get-Away Special" projects by students, which were carried aboard the craft. But now that only three shuttles remain in NASA's fleet, there probably won't be enough cargo space or time for the projects, Ames said.

The latest report will not affect SDL much directly, he said. The laboratory's involvement with the shuttle and the International Space Station "is a very, very small percentage of what we do," he said. "Most of what we fly are with expendable rockets, unmanned rockets."

A minor casualty of the accident involves the timetable for launching an instrument built by the laboratory. It is scheduled to fly on the next shuttle launch, and that probably won't happen until the March 2004-March 2005 period, he said.

Ames studied the report to discover if anything in it could improve operations at SDL.

Much of the criticism of NASA in the report involves its cultural mind-set, "managerial attitudes, things like that," he said. Analysts concluded that after the Challenger shuttle disaster of 1986, NASA implemented many new rules and oversights, he said. But the report says that "they haven't been following them."

"They've grown a little complacent" because of the string of successful spaceflights between Challenger and Columbia, it says. One of the investigative board's most significant comments is that America needs to recognize that human space flight always has been dangerous and always will be. If human space exploration is to continue, Ames said, the country will have to accept that it is hazardous. "It's still a risky business," he said.

The report emphasizes ways to minimize that risk, and that's where the red flag began waving.

NASA experts were almost immediately aware that the foam had hit the shuttle wing. But they discounted the danger and did not take special action.

The lesson was clear to Ames. "We need to sweat the small stuff," he said. SDL should carry out procedures to make sure it pays attention to small details that otherwise might be overlooked, he said. "Cross the T's and dot the I's," he said. The lab is careful anyway, he added. "It just doesn't hurt to take another look."