NASA execs had discussion about shuttle’s doom while it orbited

Friday was the 10th anniversary of an event which almost happened in the skies over Rockdale and Milam County.

The space shuttle Columbia broke apart over east Texas, killing seven astronauts. The tragedy happened so close to our part of the state that some Rockdale residents said they saw “extra sparkles” as they viewed Columbia low in the sky in the first stages of its crash.

Last week, for the first time, a retired NASA executive revealed some chilling news. Officials actually discussed whether they should tell a shuttle crew it was doomed, if the mission engineers had determined it beforehand. And what triggered the discussion was an investigation of the actual problem which caused this tragedy.

At liftoff, foam insulation from the massive fuel tanks broke off and hit Columbia’s heat shield, damaging it so much that, in retrospect, the shuttle was doomed from that point on. NASA, of course, didn’t know that.

In fact, engineers thought the damage was minimal, decided they didn’t need a closer view of the damage, and even sent the crew a short video clip of the incident.

After the foam damage investigation, which erroneously concluded there was no cause for concern, operations chief Jon Harpold asked flight director Wayne Hale a hypothetical question. “Do you think astronauts would want to know they were going to die or should the knowledge be kept from them?”

That assumed there was nothing which could be done.

Harpold said he thought instead of remaining in orbit and dying eventually when air ran out, they’d prefer to have a happy, successful flight and die unexpectedly in re-entry.

Stunningly, that’s exactly what happened.

Hale revealed that conversation last week. Harpold died in 2004. Space shuttles were retired in 2011.

Hale said, despite that conversation, NASA would never have kept the astronauts in the dark and would have tried everything to fix the problem. But he admitted it probably wouldn’t have made any difference.

An in-flight heat shield repair kit was developed for subsequent missions.

Rest in peace Rick Husband, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chaula, William McCool and Ilan Ramon.—M.B.

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2013-02-07 digital edition

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