Shuttle's Thermal Tiles Have History of Problems

ByABC News

Feb. 4, 2003 -- A day after Columbia's liftoff, NASA confirmed that a piece of loose foam insulation had damaged the shuttle, but engineers concluded it wouldn't fatally damage its critical thermal tiles, despite the tiles' long history of problems.

For years, NASA has been warned about the shuttle's heat shield tiles. The space agency extensively studied the problem shortly after the Challenger disaster in 1986. They eventually found the tiles were not the cause of that crash.

"What we discovered is that there could be an effect where this starts here and it just moves back to the rest of the tiles and you could get kind of like a zipper," said Michael Wiskerchen, a former NASA scientist, describing how damage at one point could spread along a line of tiles.

Even before Columbia was first lauched, it lost more than 2,000 of its tiles as it was being ferried to Florida on the back of an airplane in 1979.

"We had to look at how we manufactured the glue, and how we put it on and the process that went into it," Wiskerchen said.

Then, after a two-year delay to fix the tiles, the Columbia was finally launched in 1981. Despite all of the work that was done during the delay, Columbia still lost 15 tiles during the blastoff.

And on almost every shuttle flight since, there has been some kind of problem with the tiles, although never in critical areas.

"You could actually get a burn-through in some regions and still land safely, and you could just go repair the burn through place. So it is very critical as to where it happens and how it happens," Wiskerchen said.

ABCNEWS has learned that during a launch of Columbia in 1997, more than 100 damaged tiles were damaged when insulation foam from an external fuel tank flaked off and hit the tiles. A NASA report said the damage was so serious that the tiles had to be replaced.

Read the 1997 NASA post-flight inspection report.

It's the same scenario now being investigated with the Columbia but first described in a NASA report in 1990. The author of this report, Elisabeth Pate-Cornell, got an urgent call from NASA Sunday.

"Someone from the headquarters asked me to send back to him a copy of my report," Cornell told ABCNEWS. "They remembered very well that it had existed and what it said, they could not remember where they had put it."

Inspections Suffered From Budget Falls

NASA employees charge that the doomed space shuttle Columbia — the oldest orbiter in the fleet — was showing its age while the U.S. space agency were cutting back safety measures.

But shuttle project manager Ron Dittemore said Monday he was not aware of any serious safety concerns with Columbia.

Critics say that under both presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, the aging shuttle fleet has been run on a relative shoestring, unable to afford recommended safety upgrades or deal with basic design flaws.

Despite an excellent safety record overall, a General Accounting Office report issued just a few weeks ago reached a scathing conclusion — that cutbacks during the Clinton administration reached the point of "reducing NASA's ability to safely support the shuttle program."

The report added that, despite efforts to improve under the Bush administration, little had changed. "These challenges have not been mitigated," the report found.

And it's not just the tiles. On Monday, current and former NASA employees were coming forward to say the 22-year-old Columbia was badly showing its age, even as NASA inspections were being reduced.

Retired NASA manager Jose Garcia says he complained to no avail, all the way to the White House, about shortcuts on safety checks at Kennedy Space Center.

"We were seeing things fail that hadn't failed before," said Garcia. "Which told me that, hey, what else is out there waiting to fail now because of age? Shouldn't I be looking a little closer now instead of backing out and looking less?"

Garcia wrote to then-President Clinton in August of 1995 to warn him of the dangerous consequences of "dismantling" the shuttle launch team.

"Operational efficiencies within NASA should be accomplished with minimal, if any, effect on the safety of the shuttle and its crew," he wrote.

"I know that NASA, like all other federal agencies, needs to become more efficient and economize, but the last place that any sudden or drastic changes within NASA should occur is in the hands-on shuttle processing operations.

"In our business there is little margin for error and there are no second chances; therefore, any changes should be made judiciously," he said.

Warning: Pay the Price

Last year, NASA's own safety board strongly criticized the agency for putting off recommended safety upgrades on the shuttle, including a low atmosphere in-flight escape system deemed too expensive.

Shortly after, John Stewart and four other members of the safety board were dismissed by NASA — a move NASA denies was an attempt to silence criticism.

"The reaction was the budget was very tight and the budget didn't accommodate some of those things," said Stewart. "This was in the middle of our annual work cycle; We were in the middle of preparing our annual report."

Last year, the White House cut some $500 million from the NASA budget earmarked for shuttle safety upgrades. At the time, Sen. Bill Nelson — a Florida lawmaker and a former astronaut — warned that the country would pay a price it cannot bear.

But NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told ABCNEWS Monday that, over the course of his one-year tenure, budget considerations haven't compromised flight operation safety. "We never fly unless everybody is content that all the objections and concerns that are on the ground before we ever launch any shuttle operations at all," he said.

O'Keefe, however, doesn't think there is a witch hunt developing. "I think this is the very normal requirement on everybody's part always to really run to ground the facts of the case determine what caused this," he said. "Lives are at stake here. Families of all these heroic and courageous crew members deserve nothing less then our best efforts to find out what happened."

A satellite-tracking telescope at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico captured at least one image of the space shuttle Columbia just before it broke up at 200,000 feet.An Air Force spokesman told ABCNEWS that NASA asked for the telescope picture the day after Columbia was destroyed

Air Force and NASA officials refused to comment on what the picture showed or whether it would be helpful in the investigationinto the cause of the shuttle disaster Saturday morning.

ABCNEWS' Rhonda Schwartz, Vic Walter and Teri Whitcraft contributed to this report.