Authoritative Opinion: NASA Specialists Watched Columbia Start and Made Mistakes

Editorial office of PRAVDA.Ru appealed to Senior Research Fellow at the U.S. Air Force Base (Eglin, Florida), former NASA member and former Soviet scientist Alexander Bolonkin for comments on the Columbia shuttle tragedy.

- The death of seven astronauts (Husband, McCool, Ramon, Brown, Anderson, Clark and Chawla) shocked not only America. National mourning was also declared in Israel, as one of the perished was the first Israeli astronaut in the space crew. The catastrophe is also a tragedy for India, as an astronaut American of Indian origin, Chawla, was member of the crew as well.

As soon as the demise of the shuttle was reported, several versions of the tragedy immediately arose, including the suggestion of a diversion, as Texas residents said they saw explosion of the shuttle. At present, when we know that temperature in the shuttle’s left wing, and then inside the craft, suddenly rose several minutes before the catastrophe, the main version of the tragedy says that a thermal protection tile of the rocket’s fuel tank was lost during liftoff, then it hit the nose of the left-wing heat-resisting covering and destroyed it. This was observed at the liftoff moment, but NASA specialists decided that the damage was insignificant and couldn’t hamper return of the shuttle. Butt they were mistaken. As my experience shows, majority of NASA employees are engineers working there right after graduation from institutes or under the patronage of some influential persons. What is more, NASA’s success is achieved not due to the greatness of the personnel, but because of US’s large-scale financing of space explorations (it is 30 times more than total financing of the rest countries of the world spent on space exploration).

But what could they do? It is impossible to repair a spaceship in the space. The flight program provides for no going out into the space and for no equipment necessary for repairing. The only thing that the astronauts realized was that the damage was considerable and they would be inevitably burnt down at approaching the Earth. Could any attempts be made to turn the spaceship back during the liftoff? But it took time to get information concerning damages on the shuttle and to analyze it; within this period of time the rocket already passed through the dense atmospheric bed, and the spaceship would have inevitably heated up during its return. By the way, contrary to the narrow-minded opinion introduced by journalists, spaceships get warm not because of friction on the air, but because they compress the air in front of them and the air may reach the temperature of about 2000 degrees.  

The tragedy occurred basically through the fault of the company Lockheed Martin, the producer of the thermal protection coating. Companies usually employ lower-paid uneducated emigrants for simple operations, it is frequent that technology compliance is neglected at that.  Five Shuttles performed 113 space flights since the moment their exploitation started (April 1981), the Columbia shuttle made over 30 flights and it was the first spaceship of this series. Many defects were discovered over the exploitation period. But catastrophes never occurred when the shuttle got back from the space. The shuttle of Challenger also blew up during its liftoff in January 1986 and killed seven astronauts. Subcontractor of the Lockheed Martin company, Thiokol, was declared one of the party at fault of the catastrophe.

Unlike Americans, all Soviet cosmonauts (Komarov on April 23, 1967; Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev on June 30, 1971) died when they were getting back to the Earth. The Communist party central committee was guilty of Komarov’s death, as it categorically demanded that a space flight must be performed by May 1, the International Labour Day, although the spaceship was unfinished. The other three astronauts probably died because of the imperfection of the spaceship construction and the demand of the Communist party central committee to place three cosmonauts into a cockpit designed for one man.

The shuttle has a thermal coating consisting of 24192 tiles and 3254 flexible isolation mats. The coating protects the shuttle from aerodynamic heating at orbiting and during descending. This coating is different on different areas and depends upon the thermal load of each sector. A composite of carbon and graphite with the heat resistance of up to 1650 degrees is the most heat-resistant material, it is used in the shuttle’s fore body and in the front edge of wings.  Fiber glass tiles protect the flank surfaces where the temperature may reach 650 degrees. Quartz fiber mats and felt mats guarantee thermal insulation of the shuttle from red-hot and vaporable tiles. The tiles are replaced after every flight. Probably, bad junction resulted in detachment of the tiles during the liftoff and during vibration. The fragment that crashed to the left wing of the shuttle at the 80th second of the flight weighed about one kilogram. Breaking of the fuel tank isolation occurred with this shuttle even earlier, in 1992. But damages were insignificant that time, that is why no tragedy occurred. What a pity that NASA didn’t pay special attention to the problem!

Many facts prove the version saying that the catastrophe occurred because of damages in the thermal insulation. Sensors of the hydraulic system burnt down in the shuttle’s left wing several minutes before the catastrophe, pressure transducers burnt down in the chassis, then the temperature in the middle trunk suddenly increased. It is highly likely that hot gases penetrated there. The shuttle started losing its path and the airborne computer attempted to adjust the path. But the high temperature didn’t reach the crew immediately, as the astronauts reported no temperature increase. The shuttle was destroyed instantly.

The demises of the two shuttles of the five ones (Challenger and Columbia) will seriously undermine the US Space Exploration program and especially the program of the International Space Station. Supply of the International Space Station with essential goods and saving of the astronauts in emergency situations are to become a real problem because of this loss.

I worked in NASA when a life-saving craft X-33 was developed and I observed its tests. However, this program is not completed yet, and it is not clear when it will be finished. Some time ago NASA budget was curtailed. The NASA leadership fired five members of the Aerospace Security Council and two consultants for their criticism. One more employee left the service himself as he disagreed with the NASA leadership’s position. Unfortunately, the practice of persecution of people criticizing the agency’s programs and policy is widely used in NASA.

Space exploration inevitably entails victims. Such is the way of any progress, and humanity must pay this price if we want to become masters of the nature and live better and longer. And this price is insignificant as compared with human losses in wars, or as a result of diseases, crimes and terrorism. The knowledge we obtain, science, new technologies have radically changed our life and turned us into masters of the Earth. It is actually very important to learn the lessons of every catastrophe, try to avoid making the same mistakes, to reduce the number of human victims; we must  always remember those heroes who sacrificed their lives for the sake of new knowledge and for progress of humanity.

I am sure that Americans will never forget the heroes of the space, take care of their families and children. It’s a pity that Russia, former Soviet republics never commemorate anniversaries of astronauts’ deaths. When cosmonauts were officially spoken about, only the dates of their flights are mentioned, but nobody ever says how the flights ended. The above mentioned Soviet cosmonauts died because of the Communist party central committee that pursued new records. Twenty one cosmonauts tragically died over the whole period of the space era.

In order to reduce the death probability among cosmonauts, I offer to equip shuttles with a small thermal protection cockpit with a parachute so that astronauts could take shelter there in emergency situations. The size and weight of shuttles allow to build in such cockpits. 

Picture: Alexander Bolonkin

Alexander Bolonkin
Doctor of Technical Science,
Former NASA senior research fellow
Special to PRAVDA.Ru

Author`s name Michael Simpson