When NASA’s environmental concerns resulted in the tragic deaths of the Columbia crew, it wasn’t the first time a space shuttle crew was lost because of misguided regulations and fads.
In fact, NASA’s own investigations strongly suggest something very similar occurred back in 1986 resulting in the destruction of the Challenger and its entire crew.
Long before the space agency officially blamed the Feb. 1 disintegration of the Columbia upon re-entry – on foam insulation breaking free from the external tank and slamming into the leading edge of the left wing – I reported NASA knew of a continuing problem with foam insulation dating back six years. The new foam had been chosen for shuttle missions, I reported – the day after the Columbia tragedy – because it was “environmentally friendly.”
More than six years ago, NASA investigated extensive thermal tile damage on the space shuttle Columbia as a direct result of the shedding of external tank insulation on launch. The problems began when the space agency switched to materials and parts that were considered more “environmentally friendly,” according to a NASA report obtained by WorldNetDaily.
In 1997, during the 87th space shuttle mission, similar tile damage was experienced during launch when the external tank foam crashed into some tiles during the stress of takeoff. Fortunately, the damage was not catastrophic. But investigators then noted the damage followed changes in the methods of “foaming” the external tank – changes mandated by concerns about being “environmentally friendly.”
Here’s what that report said: “During the … mission, there was a change made on the external tank. Because of NASA’s goal to use environmentally friendly products, a new method of ‘foaming’ the external tank had been used for this mission and the (previous) mission. It is suspected that large amounts of foam separated from the external tank and impacted the orbiter. This caused significant damage to the protective tiles of the orbiter.”
While the NASA report on that earlier Columbia mission ended on a positive note, suggesting changes would be made in procedures to avoid such problems in the future, obviously the problems were never corrected.
Worse, this is apparently not the first shuttle mission and crew destroyed because of concerns about the environmental friendliness of certain products used by NASA.
Anyone alive in 1986 likely remembers where he or she was when the Challenger exploded shortly after launch. And everyone who followed the story of the investigation of the Challenger disaster knows the official findings – a problem with O-rings.
But what exactly was the problem with the O-rings?
In 1977, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of asbestos in a wide range of paint products. NASA, through the mid-1980s, had used a commercially available, “off-the-shelf” putty manufactured by the Fuller O’Brien Paint Company in San Francisco to help seal the shuttle field joints. But the paint company, fearful of legal action as a result of the asbestos ban, stopped manufacturing the putty. NASA had to look for another solution.
Six months before the Challenger disaster, a July 23, 1985, memo by budget analyst Richard Cook warned about new burn-through problems with O-rings.
“Engineers have not yet determined the cause of the problem,” he wrote. “Candidates include the use of a new type of putty (the putty formerly used was removed from the market by NASA because it contained asbestos).”
Indeed, NASA began buying putty from a New Jersey company. The experts working with it noted that it did not seem to seal the joints as well as the old putty, but they continued to use it anyway.
As long as I am the only one reporting that NASA has for 20 years put petty “environmental correctness” ahead of the lives of astronauts, I do not expect future missions to be any safer.
Problems are seldom corrected when they are not recognized.