Space shuttle mission managers at a key Jan. 24 meeting hastily approved a technical analysis that some shuttle engineers now say overlooked the fatal potential of debris damage to Columbia.
The engineers told the Orlando Sentinel that the analysis -- presented eight days after the launch -- was guided by false assumptions and was colored by the grim realization that nothing could be done to save Columbia's seven astronauts in a worst-case scenario. Other concerns about the severity of the debris strike also were downplayed, according to some shuttle workers.
"Unlike Challenger, there was no way to prevent this, but the same scenario played out," a Johnson Space Center engineer said. "A problem was identified, but by the time it got to management, it was sugar-coated."
Accident investigators for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are working under the theory that the strike initiated a chain of events that caused Columbia to disintegrate above Central Texas during the ship's return home on Feb. 1. The tragedy killed six Americans and Israel's first astronaut.
Within hours of Columbia's Jan. 16 launch, some of the engineers watching films of the liftoff feared the worst.
Long-range tracking cameras south of Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A showed a piece of foam insulation the size of a doormat breaking off the shuttle's external fuel tank 80 seconds into flight. The insulation appeared to make three impacts on critical heat-resistant tiles at unknown spots on Columbia's belly.
Groups at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala., review films of every launch for possible debris hits. The day after Columbia's launch, stunned analysts stared at the video.
"My immediate reaction was 'Oh, my God. We have a problem,'" a shuttle engineer said. "It was the biggest hit I had ever seen the orbiter take."
By Jan. 18, films of the impact were being screened for top shuttle officials. Some engineers suggested taking pictures of Columbia's belly.
NASA has access to telescopes capable of photographing the shuttle in orbit. In 1998, after a drag chute door fell off of Discovery during liftoff, images were taken of the shuttle's aft end.
With only marginal prospects for getting quality pictures of tile damage, however, mission managers decided by Jan. 20 not to try.
"We didn't think the pictures would be very useful to us, combined with the fact that there was zero we could do about it," shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said Saturday.
There was enough concern, however, to schedule at least two teleconferences during Columbia's first week in orbit to discuss the debris impact and possible damage to the shuttle's tiles. The teleconferences included representatives from NASA, shuttle prime contractor United Space Alliance, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Their job was to study the issue and report to senior officials that make up the shuttle's mission-management team.
During the meetings, there was a presentation by a trajectory-analysis group, which gave estimates of the amount of debris that struck Columbia's tiles and where it hit on the shuttle's underside. Tile experts used that analysis to estimate possible damage.
After the teleconferences, the group reached a conclusion: There was the potential for a large area of damaged tile, but the damage would be limited in depth and not endanger Columbia.
"These thermal analyses indicate possible localized structural damage but no burn-through and no safety of flight issue," stated a daily summary report from the shuttle's Mission Evaluation Room issued Jan. 28.
Some, however, felt the finding was flawed.
Analysts assumed that the tank debris that struck Columbia consisted entirely of foam insulation. The possibility that harder tank materials or ice were involved was not considered. There also was concern the tile team's analysis of the depth of the damage was wrong because it did not fully account for the large amount of debris that hit.
"There were holes in the presentation," said the shuttle engineer who heard it. "They said, 'Well, we'll get to that later but they never did.'"
The following day, on Friday, Jan. 24, the group gave the presentation to the mission-management team during a teleconference that included representatives from KSC, Johnson, Marshall and NASA headquarters in Washington. One participant recalled that the presenters quickly went through many of the charts and that, afterward, there were few questions.
The team moved on to other business.
"I got the feeling everyone's minds already were made up before the MMT [mission management team meeting]," a participant said. "Maybe they felt it was the only conclusion they could reach because otherwise, what could they do? Do you tell the crew their vehicle might break up?"
Linda Ham, program integration manager at Johnson Space Center, chaired the management-team meeting. In an apparent effort to deflect possible criticism of her and other management-team members, program manager Dittemore said Monday that all responsibility ultimately should rest with him.
Dittemore has a reputation as one of the most safety-conscious program managers in shuttle history.
Neither he nor Ham responded to a request for an interview on Tuesday.
"It is my personal commitment that I don't do anything that would jeopardize the crew or the vehicle," Dittemore said Monday. "I did not chair the mission-management team. ... But I was kept informed and knowledgeable at all times."
When news of Columbia's destruction came shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday, some of those unsatisfied with how the launch-debris issue had been resolved instantly made the connection.
"Maybe there was nothing we could have done to save the crew," the shuttle engineer said. "But the bad part is that we'll probably never have all of the data we need to prevent something like this from happening in the future."
Before the tragedy, plans already were in place to fly film footage of the external tank being jettisoned from the shuttle to Johnson Space Center immediately after Columbia's landing. Analysts wanted to study the film before shuttle Atlantis' scheduled rollout to the launch pad this week.
Three cameras were installed in a well on Columbia where the external tank's fuel lines run in to the orbiter. Other pictures were taken by the crew with an onboard camera. Shuttle managers had hoped the film would reveal exactly how much foam insulation fell off the tank and hit Columbia.
Now, they may never know.