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Earlier Shuttle Flights Suffered From Same Columbia Problems

By John Schwartz

and Matthew L. Wald

The New York Times -- The space shuttle Columbia was not the first to have superheated gas invade its left wing on re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, according to documents released Tuesday by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In 2000, the documents show, the shuttle Atlantis went into orbit with a quarter-inch breach in the wing’s leading edge, allowing blowtorch-hot plasma into the wing on re-entry. But unlike the accident that destroyed the Columbia on Feb. 1 and killed its crew of seven, the incident resulted in only minor damage, leaving the wing’s inner structure intact.

The documents, which were released by NASA under a Freedom of Information Act request, were first described on Tuesday by The Associated Press.

The documents say the gap in the leading edge of the wing was created because workers installed insulation improperly during an overhaul in Palmdale, Calif., in 1997. The piece of gap-filling insulation was “folded up and pushed away” from the gap it was supposed to fill, leaving the cavity behind it exposed.

Responding to the release of the documents, an expert outside the investigation into the loss of the Columbia said Tuesday that the incident should have put NASA on high alert about wing damage. “That says they had fair warning and ignored it,” said the expert, Paul A. Czysz, a professor emeritus at Parks College of Engineering and Aviation at St. Louis University and a longtime consultant to the space agency.

When discussing the potential damage to Columbia from the foam, Czysz argued, “they should have said, ‘If that opened up a crack any bigger than the one on Atlantis, we’re in deep trouble.”’

He added, “Somebody ought to have his backside kicked so hard that it hurts.”

But an astronaut on that May 2000 mission, Mary Ellen Weber, disagreed. “Absolutely, people knew if you have a breach in the wing, bad things can happen,” she said. “That isn’t news.

”Knowing what I know now about gas entering the shuttle’s wing, do I believe the mission I was on was any more risky than I thought it was when I took off? No.“

Weber, now an associate vice president at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said she was not informed of the wing damage after the mission, though she said that NASA might have passed along the information to others in the astronaut corps.

But every astronaut knows the risks of space flight, she said. After the Columbia investigation, ”we may fix this particular problem, but I guarantee the next time astronauts get on that shuttle there will be a thousand other things that can happen.“