Kooks and Myths

There are many myths about the Columbia accident, and many continue to be spread today. Here's just some of the more extreme myths.

  • Myth - The crew could have been saved
  • Myth - Dave Brown told his brother that Columbia was damaged
  • Myth - NASA won’t permit shuttles to reenter over the United States anymore
  • Myth - Columbia's debris hit the ground at incredible speeds because of their fall from the extreme altitude
  • Myth - NASA said there were no photos of Columbia's wing
  • Myth - Nostradamus predicted the Columbia accident
  • Myth - Ilan Ramon broadcasted video of the cracked wing
  • Myth - There was ice mixed in with the foam which struck Columbia
  • Myth – The paint which was used on the STS-1 External Tank prevented foam from coming off
  • Myth - Left wing environmental policies doomed the shuttle
  • Myth - Israeli spy satellite photos show Columbia exploding
  • And Myths from NASA


    Myth - The crew could have been saved

    The biggest myth about the Columbia accident is the astronauts lives could have been saved if NASA’s managers had listened to the engineers who were worried that Columbia was damaged during its launch.

    It’s certainly true that things should have been done better and the Mission Management Team structure did not encourage the engineers who had concerns to bring up those concerns to the high level managers.

    But even if everybody made the exact correct decisions at each point after Columbia’s launch and no mistakes were made there just wasn’t enough time to come to a reasonable conclusion that Columbia was fatally damaged soon enough for a rescue to be feasible.

    The Columbia Accident Investigation Board instructed NASA to come up with a rescue or repair scenario which would have worked, given the starting assumption that there is absolute hard proof by flight day 5 that Columbia was fatally damaged by the foam which hit the left wing during the launch. Only if there’s knowledge that early could the astronauts be given instructions to drastically cut back on consuming their limited supplies so they could remain alive until a rescue shuttle could be launched.


    Myth - Dave Brown told his brother that Columbia was damaged

    One of the most bizarre stories about the Columbia accident came out in Congress on February 4, 2003 when Senator George Allen (R-Va) announced that he had just talked to Dave Brown's brother Doug. Allen said Doug Brown told him that his brother Dave had sent him an e-mail from space saying the astronauts were concerned that the wing was damaged!

    The Congressional Record for February 4, 2003, or jump directly to George Allen's remarks.

    Thumbnail for FD 1 Dave looks at the Earth for the first time.jpg Thumbnail for FD 1 ET on video.jpg The e-mail Doug Brown was referring to was just Dave talking about the wonders of space - Dave never mentioned any concerns about the health of the shuttle. Doug also mentioned watching the video of Dave shooting the External Tank after launch which was aired on NASA TV, an ordinary shuttle activity. Senator Allen had misinterpreted the remarks by a grieving family member.


    Myth - NASA won’t permit shuttles to reenter over the United States anymore

    With all of the debris falling in East Texas many wondered whether NASA would ever allow shuttles to fly over populated areas again and whether or not that would put an end to shuttle landings in Florida.

    There are three primary landing sites – the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Edwards AFB in California, and White Sands in New Mexico. White Sands is normally considered a backup backup site and has only been used once, the STS-3 mission in 1982. But what many people don’t realize is many of the reentry paths to Edwards go over heavily populated areas in the Los Angeles basin.

    CAIB chair Hal Gehman said, “When NASA calculates its entry path they do not take into account what’s under it. We felt in the future, all things being equal – they still have to keep the shuttle safe - we do need to think about what’s under it.”

    Almost every shuttle mission since 1999 goes to the International Space Station. When reentering the shuttle can take a northwest to southeast path over the continental United States or a southwest to northeast path which passes over Mexico or Central America, Cuba, and Florida before landing in Florida. NASA almost always selects the later, not because of risks to the public, but because of a variety of reasons including high altitude ice particles in high latitude clouds and the crew’s sleep cycle. The astronauts have to be awake for launch, landing, docking, and undocking. That drives the rest of the mission’s events and the best landing times occur on the landing passes from the southwest. Some of those reentry paths do go over heavily populated areas, including Mexico City, Orlando, and Sarasota.

    When it won’t interfere with the mission’s objectives the flight dynamics engineers plan shuttle reentries to avoid populated areas, but only when it doesn’t affect anything else.


    Myth - Columbia's debris hit the ground at incredible speeds because of their fall from the extreme altitude

    Many people insist that Columbia’s debris hit the ground at incredible speeds because of the altitude they fell from. But that’s wrong. Physics professor Bart Lipofsky said, "Terminal velocity is the maximum speed anything can achieve when falling through an atmosphere." Dense streamlined objects can reach a terminal velocity of a couple of hundred miles per hour.

    At extreme altitudes there's less pressure and less drag so an object can fall faster, but once that object descends to the lower atmosphere its terminal velocity decreases and it slows down. Lipofsky noted, "For an object entering the atmosphere from outer space the fringes of the atmosphere will slow it down to terminal velocity far above the Earth's surface."

    Nevertheless many refused to believe these laws. One reporter insisted, "Columbia's pieces were falling faster when they hit the ground because of its high altitude. I've taken physics, I know what I'm talking about." Lipofsky said, "Maybe next time when he takes physics he should actually open his book and read it because he's completely wrong."

    When Columbia came apart everything inside - from stickers to the massive turbopumps - fell and accelerated until they reached their own terminal velocities. In the rarified upper atmosphere, they would have continued to accelerate to very high speeds, but once they entered the lower atmosphere they would slow down to ordinary terminal velocities. Light fluffy objects had a terminal velocity of less than a mile per hour, the most dense aerodynamically shaped objects could have had terminal velocities of a couple of hundred miles per hour. Nothing could have been traveling any faster by the time it reached the lower atmosphere.


    Myth - NASA said there were no photos of Columbia's wing

    Thumbnail for s107e05359 Spacehab-fisheye.jpg NASA stated that the BOTTOM of Columbia's wing could not be viewed from within the crew cabin, or the areas closest to the fuselage. That was misinterpreted by some who thought that NASA said no portions of the wing were visible from the crew cabin. One conspiracist pointed to this very innocent photo which NASA released during the mission as "evidence" that NASA was lying since the wing is visible in this photo.

    Spacehab had put in a low priority request for the astronauts to take a photo of the Spacehab module and one of the crewmembers complied. Spacehab manager Pete Paceley even showed the photo during the mission status briefing on January 30! Not only is NASA not trying to hide this photo - it's available for anybody who wants it - for free. It's in NASA's Flight Day 7 photo collection.


    Myth - Nostradamus predicted the Columbia accident

    Would you believe that soothsayer and prophet Nostradamus predicted the Columbia accident hundreds of years ago? There was an Internet message floating around shortly after the accident (always a standard for high credibility) that read -

    In the mission of the first blue star,
    a child of the holy land among the seven shall perish,
    as the ship descends heavens sky,
    the lone star be scattered with wreckage.

    It got everything right and "lone star" can be interpreted as either Ilan Ramon (for the Star of David) or the Lonestar state of Texas. But this "verse" is actually a fake created just after the accident by somebody with a very sick sense of humor.


    Myth - Ilan Ramon broadcasted video of the cracked wing

    Israeli television station "Erev Hadash" stated that Ilan Ramon had shown Prime Minister Ariel Sharon views of the shuttle's wing with cracks in it during their interview over a week before the accident!.

    The images were actually slightly out-of-focus payload bay blankets in the forward part of the shuttle's cargo bay which were transmitted from Columbia the day before the interview. What looks like cracks are the natural folds in the payload bay blankets.

    Note the black cylinder in the image, part of the latch which closes the shuttle's cargo bay doors.

    For comparison look at the photo of Mike Anderson and Dave Brown taken several months before the launch when they inspected Columbia's cargo bay. Brown is staring at that black connector because one of the few spacewalking tasks Anderson and Brown were trained to do was to close the cargo bay doors manually if there was a problem with the mechanism.

    The image shown on Israeli television.
    Thumbnail for Israeli television.jpg
    The actual image from the day before the Sharon interview.
    Thumbnail for FD 5 highlights showing payload bay liners.jpg
    Dave Brown studies the payload bay door closing mechanism.
    Thumbnail for 02pd0937 Mike Dave CEIT.jpg


    Myth - There was ice mixed in with the foam which struck Columbia

    Many people refused to believe a block of foam you can puncture with your finger could destroy the shuttle. Their theory was the foam was like a sponge, absorbing water that changed to ice because of the supercold propellants inside the tank. These hypothetical “foamsicles,” if they existed, would be far stronger than ordinary foam.

    The New York Times claimed Columbia spent two weeks longer than usual at the launch pad, where it was exposed to four times the usual amount of rain. The problem is the phrase “than usual.” The schedule from rollout to launch requires a minimum of two weeks, but it's extremely flexible depending on holidays and other scheduled activities. Columbia spent 39 days on the launch pad for STS-107 – exactly what was planned when it rolled out on December 9. – to the minute -–there wasn’t a single delay. The average time a shuttle spends on the launch pad is 38.2 days, so STS-107 was almost exactly average. (There were 33 missions that spent more time on the pad, as much as 5.3 months in one case.)

    STS-107’s ET was exposed to rain, just like every other mission. Weather records show 12.78 inches of rain during Columbia’s stay on the launch pad, versus an average of 5.45 inches for all launches -– not the “four times” claimed by the Times. There was nothing extraordinary about rain and STS-107.

    Could any amount of rain be absorbed by the foam and turn into ice? No. The ET's foam is formulated as closed cell foam and designed to repel water. (A Styrofoam picnic cooler is an example of closed cell foam; it doesn't absorb water. A sponge, in contrast is open cell.) Water is weight, and if the foam did absorb even a tiny amount of water, the vast amount of water-soaked foam would reduce the amount of payload that could be carried into space. CAIB head Hal Gehman noted, “In all the testing we did, we were unable to get this foam to absorb much moisture. It doesn't matter how much it rains on it.” No water, no ice. No ice, no foamsicles.

    The reason a piece of foam could damage Columbia is simple - kinetic energy. Just like a pencil penetrating a tree during a tornado anything with a large velocity carries a large amount of energy. The 1.67 pound piece that struck Columbia's wing at over 500 m.p.h. carried as much punch as a compact car hitting a brick wall head-on at 9.4 m.p.h..


    Myth – The paint which was used on the STS-1 External Tank prevented foam from coming off

    The first two shuttle launches, STS-1 and STS-2, had white-colored External Tanks. The tanks were painted white for thermal insulation purposes. After engineers determined that the paint wasn’t necessary and the foam had enough insulating properties by itself the decision was made not to paint any of the later tanks. Not painting the tanks saved 600 pounds which translated into additional payload the shuttle could lift into space.

    Thumbnail for STS-1 ET post separation.jpg However it’s a myth that foam wasn’t lost from the white colored tanks. NASA records show three areas where photographs showed that foam was missing from STS-1's tank. This rare photo is from the engineering film from the umbilical well camera mounted in Columbia's belly. At the limited resolution of the film a fist-size chunk of missing foam is just a single pixel so only larger divots can be seen.

    NASA's internal engineering reports show three places where missing foam was seen on the liquid hydrogen tank: a 5" circular divot where it appears the substrate layer underneath was exposed in the aft tank (roughly 2/3 of the way to the right in this image), a 16" x 12" divot 27 feet from the bottom of the tank, and a 15" x 20" divot 37 feet from the bottom of the tank. All of these missing pieces were located close to the gaseous hydrogen pressurization line which runs horizontally at the top of this photo behind the much wider 17" liquid oxyen supply pipe.

    Thumbnail for STS-1 Columbia flap.jpg After Columbia’s landing inspectors found 247 damaged tiles (more than the next two flights put together) with much of the damage due to the foam lost from the External Tank during the launch.

    It’s also important to note that the white paint is almost the same color as the foam before it cures into its orange color, which makes it more difficult to detect any lost foam. So it’s likely there was more damage which went undetected because of the white paint.


    Myth - Left wing environmental policies doomed the shuttle

    According to some claims, EPA regulations that eliminated Freon caused the foam to fall off.

    CFC-11 Freon was used to apply the Spray On Foam Insulation (SOFI) to the ET, and the formula was changed because of EPA regulations. The new method did result in more foam falling off and hitting the shuttle, most notably STS-87, which had 308 damaged tiles, but that was not the type of foam which doomed Columbia.

    In the mid-1990s, the EPA banned CFC-11 Freon. NASA has many waivers from the EPA for critical items. In each case a commercial supplier is licensed to produce the limited quantities NASA needs, but it’s incredibly expensive to manufacture the relatively small quantities just for one customer. Lockheed-Martin went through a major effort to find a more environmentally friendly propellant. (It wasn't something they wanted to do, but a necessity.) They selected HCFC 141b (Dichlorofluoroethane). HCFC 141b is only used to spray acreage foam –applied to the large cylindrical surfaces with a giant robotic sprayer.

    The bipod foam which doomed Columbia was BX-250 foam, which was excluded from that EPA mandate. Technicians built the bipod by hand, layer by layer, and carved it into shape. The manufacturing process for the bipod and its chemical composition did not change and still used CFC-11. No changes to environmental regulations caused the Columbia accident.


    Myth - Israeli spy satellite photos show Columbia exploding

    Another person with a sick sense of humor claimed that an Israeli spy satellite took photos of Columbia as it exploded. The photos are actually from the fantasy film 'Armageddon'.

    Thumbnail for EROS VAB.jpg Thumbnail for EROS Launch Pad 39A.jpg Israel's spy-Earth resources satellite EROS did take photos of Columbia, but it was the day before launch when it was still on Earth! Imagesat, the commercial firm which distributes EROS data proudly released images of the Vehicle Assembly Building and Columbia on Pad 39A during the STS-107 mission.


    And Myths from NASA

    Sad to say, NASA also spread plenty of misinformation. The
    press kit says STS-107 used a superlightweight External Tank (page 142) because the public affairs person who put in that page couldn't be bothered with checking and finding out STS-107 had an older lightweight tank.

    NASA’s website says the Kirtland AFB image of Columbia’s reentry was taken “as it passed by the Starfire Optical Range, Directed Energy Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.” It doesn’t mention that it was taken with a small consumer telescope, not the giant adaptive-optics Starfire telescope.

    When NASA head Sean O'Keefe testified before Congress he compared the lost bipod foam to a Styrofoam picnic cooler falling off of a pickup truck. That would only be true if by “falling” you meant propelled at over 500 m.p.h..

    Many within NASA, including O'Keefe and engineers, said many times it was a miracle nobody was hurt or killed by debris. Given that there were only 35 pieces collected per square mile it would have been surprising if somebody was hurt. Certainly it's fortunate nobody was hurt - but hardly a miracle.


    EROS images courtesy of Imagesat.
    Other photos from the author's collection and NASA.

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