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Space Science

NASA Test Shows Foam Could Be Culprit 525

Posted by michael
from the 0.5mv^2 dept.
Ben Hutchings writes "The BBC has a report on an impact simulation that aimed to recreate the impact of insulating foam on Columbia's wing. The result was a large hole that probably could not be repaired in orbit even if it was known about."
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NASA Test Shows Foam Could Be Culprit

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @02:31PM (#6393822)
    Why do they always mention that the astronauts couldn't repair the damage? They could still potentially be rescued if they had known about the damage. NASA still failed in their basic responsibility to those in space by not pursuing the potential damage further and not monitoring the basic condition of the aircraft.
  • Eh... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @02:33PM (#6393845)
    Wasn't this already the prevailing theory? What exactly is news here?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @02:39PM (#6393925)
    This post is not redundant. The primary reason NASA stated for not providing monitoring tools for the shuttle in space was that they couldn't repair any damage they found. But in reality they do have multiple options if the spacecraft becomes damaged prior to re-entry. It was such an head-in-the-sand approach and they continue to state it as a defense.
  • by ToadMan8 (521480) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @02:44PM (#6393984)
    We've seen something very much like this before, if not the same time. Slashdot search is failing me (it was about a month and a half ago, I posted a comment but it fell out of my recent comment page.) I will then reiterate what I said before, as it again applies:

    Why would NASA be shooting the piece of foam at the wing of the shuttle at "about 850 km (530 miles) hour" (sic.)?! The shuttle is going slowly when just taking off in the relatively dense atmosphere of the surface of the earth. As it picks up speed in the thinner upper atmosphere it is also in an environment with less friction.

    My point is that if the piece of foam broke off the the top of the shuttle when the craft was doing many hundreds of miles per hour (like when the ET separates - the last time the foam (covering the ET) is on the shuttle) the air is not dense enough to slow the piece of foam enough to possibly impact the shuttle at hundreds of miles per hour.

    If you toss a baseball out of a car window when you're driving at 100 mph the ball isn't going to slow down to 0 by the back of the car. It maybe will loose 100 mph in comparison to the shuttle by the time it decelerates a bit from where it broke off to where it hits the wing. That's not such a big deal.

    If the foam or a bird with oxygen mask and pressure suit were hanging about at a few tens of miles above the earth when the shuttle is going this fast this experiment would be realistic.
  • Just as well (Score:3, Insightful)

    by The Bungi (221687) <thebungi@gmail.com> on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @02:46PM (#6394019) Homepage
    probably could not be repaired in orbit even if it was known about.

    Well, I hate to sound callous and all, but... if this indeed was impossible to repair then... well, it was probably for the better.

    I mean, I can't imagine having seven people up there dying slowly on live TV. That would have been terrible.

    What NASA needs to do now is to just replace the shuttle with something better for crying out loud (the Russians have been doing space on the cheap for any number of years. The STS does not really save us that much money) and get on with life.

  • by Snarfvs Maximvs (28022) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @02:51PM (#6394063)
    ...to anyone who's ever ridden a motorcycle. Getting nailed by a bee in the middle of the chest at 75 mph is no treat, let me tell you.

    And I'll bet a bee weighs a LOT less than the chunk of foam that hit the Columbia.

    Hey, it's not like this was rocket science...just basic PHYSICS, for Pete's sake!
  • by rodney dill (631059) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @03:01PM (#6394199) Journal
    Why would NASA be shooting the piece of foam at the wing of the shuttle at "about 850 km (530 miles) hour" (sic.)?! The shuttle is going slowly when just taking off in the relatively dense atmosphere of the surface of the earth. As it picks up speed in the thinner upper atmosphere it is also in an environment with less friction.

    The initial report that I remembered hearing, within days of the catastrophe, was that the shuttle was already doing around 1900/mph, when the foam detached and hit the wing. It (the shuttle) was probably still greatly accelerating at that point, and devoid of thrust, an oddly shaped, and "relatively" light piece of foam would probably gain some relevant kinetic energy by the time it contacted the wing. I haven't heard any more recent information on the speed of the shuttle at the time of the contact.
  • by Vellmont (569020) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @03:06PM (#6394241)
    If you toss a baseball out of a car window when you're driving at 100 mph the ball isn't going to slow down to 0 by the back of the car. It maybe will loose 100 mph in comparison to the shuttle by the time it decelerates a bit from where it broke off to where it hits the wing. That's not such a big deal.
    Yah, but if I toss a piece of foam out the window driving at 100 miles an hour, and I'm driving a semi-truck, I bet that piece of foam is going to slow down quite a bit by the time it gets to the end of the trailer. (And the orbiter is about 1.5 semi lengths). Baseballs have a large mass compared to surface area, foam has a small mass compared to surface area. Point being that foam will slow down much faster than a baseball.

    I still think your question is intereresting, I just don't think the armchair comparisons to a baseball dropped from a car are at all valid.
  • by jwriney (16598) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @03:07PM (#6394252) Homepage
    People flying in a spacecraft, the thermal system of which is the only thing that stands between them and forces strong enough to neatly distribute their bodies across 200 miles of forest, should not have to "hope it never happens again".

    The current Thermal Protection System is a dangerous, fragile and unreliable hack that should be thrown away and replaced with a more sensible system using modern materials and technologies that are proven and ready to use now.

    --riney
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @03:09PM (#6394281)
    It really pisses me off, everytime I read something like that.

    You'd be amazed what can be repaired if the only alternative is dying.
  • by pclminion (145572) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @03:24PM (#6394423)
    ... is seeing how a bunch of geeks on some website can criticize the physics knowledge of a bunch of rocket scientists. Before you start quoting various "disasters," remember that one of them was caused by a failure to convert units (some engineers made a dumb mistake), and the other was caused by an acceleration-sensitive switch having a weak spring, and therefore triggering too early. Both of these were engineering mistakes.

    These people are capable of launching a spacecraft from a planet whipping around the sun, through continuously changing gravitational fields, for hundreds of millions of miles, and put it down on a spot the width of your city park. They know physics. To put it bluntly, these people are badasses. The last thing they deserve right now is the intellectual equivalent of a 2 year old arguing over politics with Kofi Annan...

  • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @03:34PM (#6394565) Homepage Journal
    The foam strike happened shortly after the point called "Max Q", where aerodynamic loads are highest. Before then, the shuttle's still moving relatively slowly. After then, the shuttle's in thinner air.

    Aerodynamic pressure at Max Q is usually quoted as 580 pounds per square foot.

    The piece of foam that hit Columbia is usually described as "suitcase sized" and estimated to have been 1-1/2 or 1-1/4 pounds.

    One square foot is a really small suitcase, but the foam wouldn't always have been broadside-on to the relative wind. So 1 ft**2 is the right order of magnitude. The ballpark figure for acceleration is then a = F / m ~= 400 g's.

    Rounding off, since this is just back-of-the-envelope, 13,000 ft per second per second. 60 milliseconds would suffice to reach the speed used in the test.

    s == 1/2 * a * t ** 2. Accelerate at 400 g's for 60 milliseconds and you've gone 23 feet.

    The speed they used in the test is the right order of magnitude.

    As someone else pointed out, NASA also had film showing the strike and could do frame-by-frame measurements to estimate the actual speed of the chunk.
  • Re:happens often (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sowellfan (583448) <sowellfan@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @03:41PM (#6394630)
    Ok, I went & read the FAQ you linked to, but you have misinterpreted what it says. It says that the "Lightweight" tank was used on the Columbia. Regarding the "Superlightweight" tanks, it says,

    "Since 1998, however, a revised tank model - a 'Superlightweight' tank - has been in use."

    The same FAQ says in the next paragraph,

    "In addition to the development of the 'Superlightweight' tanks, Lockheed also began using a reformulated lighter version of the inch-thick, spray-on insulation used on all external tanks in the mid-1990s. The switch was made to comply with an EPA mandate to limit ozone-depleting chemicals."

    So the new foam came into use on *ALL* tanks (doesn't say 'only superlightweight'), starting in the mid-1990s, whereas the "superlightweight" tank only came into service in 1998.

    The FAQ also says that the use of the new "Superlightweight" tank started with STS-91. But the same FAQ talks about the extensive tile damage found on the return to earth of STS-87, and it mentions that the new, 'environmentally-friendly' foaming method was used on STS-87. It also refers to this new foaming method being one of a few possible reasons for the extensive tile damage. STS-87 comes before STS-91 (unless they have some weird numbering system I don't know about), so it couldn't have used one of the new 'Superlightweight' tanks with its 'environmentally-friendly' foam. So it is apparent from this evidence also, that the new foaming method was used with the Columbia tanks.

    If you are going to try to refute somebody, and then post a link to your supposed evidence, please read your evidence carefully so I don't have to waste my time responding.
  • by Cryptosporidium (145269) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @03:43PM (#6394669) Homepage
    At T+82, Shuttle speed was approx 2550fps (feet per second).
  • by ramk13 (570633) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @03:54PM (#6394758)
    1. The foam was going that fast. The *real* scientists/engineers have both the aerodynamic calculations and estimations from the video that show this.
    2. They couldn't have fixed it on orbit (no tools, materials), they couldn't have 'flown to the station, (wrong orbit, no mating adapter)' they couldn't have sent a soyuz (no mating adapter), and they likely could not have gotten a shuttle up in time (literally no time). Do some reading.
    3. They didn't know how serious the problem was. The population of know-it-all monday morning quarterbacks on /. forgets this.
    4. If NASA freaked out everytime there was a problem of that magnitude, as they understood AT THE TIME, nothing would ever get done. I'm not saying they should take risks, or even that they could have gotten to the point where they were sloppy. The bottom line is that space travel is risky, and those people who work on it take it seriously and to the best they can do. It irks me when people who know so little say 'they should have done this or that.' That *is* the reason there is the accident review board. They have the expertise. Let them do their job, and stop thinking you know more than you do.
  • by CKW (409971) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @03:54PM (#6394760) Journal
    It seems perfectly obvious to "monday-morning quarterbacks" that the foam was a problem, but five years of experience suggested otherwise.

    This is exactly the type of bad logic that helped cause the first shuttle tragedy. The dangerous fallacy that "since it's worked N times before" that it "will work N more times".

    *Anyone* who is in a man-critical environment can NOT use the simple fact that something hasn't been a problem yet to conclude that it isn't dangerous.
  • Re:another story (Score:3, Insightful)

    by limekiller4 (451497) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @03:56PM (#6394782) Homepage
    I want to know why this comes as a surprise to anyone. A very small and/or light thing moving at a very, very fast speed can cause considerable damage. *slaps forehead.

    How do you get into NASA without passing highschool physics? If I asked these people -- the ones who declared that such an impact was not cause for concern -- what was heavier; a pound of feathers or a pound of lead, what would be their answer?

    First a metric conversion issue that dooms a Mars mission now this. ... Maybe highschool physics actually isn't required...
  • by pclminion (145572) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @05:09PM (#6395505)
    Finally, someone who actually understands the complexity of this, even if you aren't quite agreeing with me...

    The system of 7 equations you mention would more than likely be highly chaotic, meaning the results would be meaningless unless the initial conditions were known to extremely high accuracy. Of course this depends on the Lyapunov exponent of the specific system. I think we're wandering off into irrelevant territory here.

    I think what is ticking me off is hearing people say "High school physics disproves this," wildly assuming that high school physics is not oversimplified and actually describes all possible scenarios. I wish these people would wake up and realize that "high school physics" is to physics as integer arithmetic is to mathematics...

  • Re:happens often (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jafac (1449) on Tuesday July 08, 2003 @05:32PM (#6395689) Homepage
    Yes. "Fair and Balanced" Faux news would have us blame the environmentalists for forcing NASA to use unsafe foam.

    That makes all the sense in the world. Instead of blaming the engineers who made the decision to launch in the face of overwhelming evidence that:
    a) Foam is falling off of the tanks (does not matter WHY)
    b) Foam strikes are already shown to cause tile damage.
    c) Ice strikes on Atlantis mission in 2000 caused enough tile damage to create a hot-gas breach on re-entry which was non-fatal. (but easily could have been).

    These three points show that something was known about the problem and something should have been done. It doesn't matter WHY the foam fell off. It was known to be falling off. The problem was this decision-making process. Not the foam!

Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft ... and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labor. -- Wernher von Braun

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