Shuttle Columbia And Crew Lost

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Final Mission For NASA's First Shuttle Orbiter...

The 113th Shuttle flight and the 28th for NASA's first Shuttle ended tragically Saturday with the death of all seven crew when the vehicle, traveling at 18.3 mach and enduring peak airframe heating of some 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit along the wing's leading edges, broke up 207,135 feet above the earth. Wreckage (some pieces just inches small) was this weekend being recovered from a 250-square-mile debris field covered at least mostly by a TFR. Three separate groups will investigate the Columbia disaster -- NASA (which has solicited the aid of the NTSB), the House Committee on Science, and a team led by retired Navy Admiral Harold W. Gehman Jr., who previously investigated the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole. Loss of the Columbia Saturday, and the Challenger in 1986, represent the loss of the Shuttle program's first and second orbiters, respectively -- three Shuttles remain. Of those, Discovery, the third built, holds seniority with 30 missions flown. NASA had recently planned to extend the life of the current Shuttles by 25 years.

...And The Investigation Begins

The early trail of statistical evidence originating with sensor readings -- and sensor failures -- during re-entry may ultimately help explain, or describe, the structural failure of the vehicle. Sensor readings were lost for the left inboard and outboard elevon, which share common wire routing adjacent to the wheel well area. Abnormal heating in the left wheel well was indicated by a brake line measurement that rose 20 - 30 degrees in five minutes. Left side "bondline temperatures" (an area above the left wing) also rose 60 degrees over 5 minutes compared to a nominal 15-degree rise on the right side while the vehicle's roll trim began to react to a drag increase on the left side of the vehicle. The drag apparently increased over time but was not deemed excessive. Soon after, the vehicle broke up. Insulation that broke free from the external fuel tank appeared to have struck the left wing during launch, but reviews of launch video footage left NASA experts with the conclusion that the impact would not have compromised structure. Amid the investigation is the agency’s recent plan to try to extend the life of the current Shuttles by an additional 25 years and a now-scathing Jan. 30 General Accounting Office report citing NASA's management of contractors as "weak" and "debilitating" with "little emphasis on end results [or] product performance."

NOTE: The GAO report is available at their Web site as an Adobe PDF Document.