As NASA investigators home in on damage to Columbia’s thermal tiles during liftoff as a leading theory into the cause of the shuttle disaster, Columbia’s designer offers supporting insight: One lost tile can spell disaster.

The orbiter is covered by some 20,000 thermal tiles designed to shield it from the extreme temperatures – up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit – it endures upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Florida Today reports the former deputy director of the space shuttle program, Sam Beddingfield, maintains a single failed tile “in the wrong place” would cause the spacecraft’s aluminum frame to “just collapse.”

Beddingfield described the 6-by-6-inch polystyrene-like tiles as fragile enough that a person could put a finger through them.

“That tile is basically Styrofoam – although it’s not,” Beddingfield told Florida Today, which reported the tiles are manufactured at Kennedy Space Center out of silica glass, Nextel or alumina fibers and bonded to a Nomex felt pad and then to the orbiter with a silicone glue.

Beddingfield demonstrates the heat capacity of a thermal tile. (Courtesy: Florida Today)

Beddingfield’s depiction adds insight into the ongoing investigation of a technical glitch that happened at liftoff on Jan. 16 that NASA officials said today has become the “leading candidate” among theories for the shuttle’s demise. It also contradicts the comments yesterday of NASA shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore, who said the loss of a single tile was “inconsequential” and could not have caused the catastrophe.

As WorldNetDaily reported, a chunk of insulating foam on the external fuel tank came off 80 seconds into Columbia’s launch and struck the left wing of the shuttle. During the 16-day mission while the spacecraft was still aloft, officials said engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing was considered minor and posed no safety hazard to the crew or vehicle.

“When we analyzed it for 10 days we did not think that it was an issue,” said Dittemore, referencing the engineering report issued on the 12th day of the mission which indicated the “potential for a large damage area to the tile” but, upon analysis, engineers concluded there was “no burn-through and no safety-of-flight issue.”

“The best and brightest engineers we have who helped design and build this system looked carefully at all the analysis and the information we had at this time, and made a determination this was not a safety-of-flight issue,” said Dittemore.

“Everyone has leaped to the conclusion that was the cause. I’m not ready to say that,” Associate Administrator Bill Readdy echoed.”That is certainly the leading candidate right now, but we have to rule things out.”

Today investigators are looking into whether Columbia’s thermal tiles were damaged far more seriously than the report concluded.

At a press conference this afternoon, Dittemore revealed that the insulation foam that peeled off the external tank during liftoff weighed 2.67 pounds and measured 20 X 16 X 6 inches in diamter.

He called the debris one of investigators’ “primary areas of emphasis” and said a team of engineers, managers and technicians was working to understand the shedding of the debris from the tank.

Dittemore said the agency was “completely redoing” the analysis done during the mission of the debris mishap to see if any “erroneous assumptions” or “mistakes” were made.

He explained that analysts would start with the “drastic” and “sobering” assumption that the external-tank shedding was the root cause of the problem for the shuttle Columbia.

While considered “drastic,” such an assumption may not be far fetched. As WND reported, NASA investigated extensive thermal tile damage caused by the shedding of external tank insulation at launch more than six years ago.

The shedding phenomenon began when the space agency switched to materials and parts that were considered more “environmentally friendly,” according to a NASA report obtained by WorldNetDaily.

“There have been reservations expressed by certain individuals that go back in time. And we’re reviewing those reservations again as part of our database,” said Dittemore. “They weren’t part of our playbook at the time.”

Engineering data of the final minutes of Columbia’s descent indicate a heat spike on the left side of the shuttle during re-entry. Temperatures rose 20 to 30 degrees in the left wheel well about seven minutes before the spacecraft’s last communication to Mission Control, or 23 minutes before its scheduled landing at Kennedy Space Center. Then over the five minutes prior to break-up, the temperature soared 60 degrees in the left side of the fuselage above the wing.

“The temperature increase indicates we have some type of thermal event. Where it’s coming from, we don’t know,” said Dittemore.

Data also indicate Columbia encountered greater wind resistance. Both the heat and wind factors may tie into the loss of thermal tiles.

According to NASA, an observer saw something fall off the shuttle over California.

Dittemore issued an all-points bulletin for any recovered tiles. He said each tile is individually coded and investigators hope to map out a scenario of what may have happened, if they can decipher the codes of the tiles found.

“It’s a mystery to us,” he said. “The missing link is out there.”

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Did environmentalism bring down Columbia?

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