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NASA Misused Foam Program

By John Schwartz

The New York Times -- The computer program that helped NASA mistakenly decide that the shuttle Columbia had not been deeply harmed by a piece of falling foam would have predicted serious damage if used properly, said the retired Boeing engineer who developed the program.

Allen J. Richardson, the engineer, said that the program, known as Crater, was never intended to be used during a mission to predict damage, as it was during Columbia’s fatal flight.

Members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which is expected to release its final report on the disaster on Tuesday, have disparaged Crater as a flawed tool. But Richardson said in telephone interviews last week that the computer program could have worked well in better hands, and could have served as a warning to managers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to order further analysis of possible damage from the foam strike.

Richardson spent 28 years as a structural engineer for what would, over time, become Boeing’s space operations. During the Apollo program he was asked to find a formula to assess possible damage from the impact of meteoroids. Richardson was assigned later to come up with a similar program for the shuttle. He retired in 1991.

The program lived on in obscurity until the Columbia broke up over Texas on Feb. 1. In the weeks that followed, Boeing’s analysis of the foam impact some 81 seconds after launch, and the way Columbia’s mission management team dealt with the information, have come under harsh scrutiny.

The foam impact was first noted the day after the Jan. 16 launch. NASA asked Boeing to analyze the effect. A small group of Boeing engineers used Crater to do the job. The program had dealt well with the nagging problem of small pieces of foam shedding from the external tank and striking the delicate insulating tiles on the underside of the wing. But the foam that hit Columbia was hundreds of times larger than anything the program had been designed to evaluate.

What Richardson had not known -- and, until the Columbia accident, NASA had apparently not known either -- was that the much larger chunks of foam had fallen off an area called the bipod ramp at least seven times in the history of the shuttle. The engineers extrapolated from the data on smaller pieces of foam and decided that the foam did not present a serious risk to the shuttle’s tiles.