Space Debris Remains Suspect as Cause of Shuttle Crash

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Byline: William Glanz, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Space has become a treacherous junkyard of dead satellites, tools and other astronomical garbage that zip around at speeds up to 17,000 miles per hour.

With an estimated 110,000 pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been unable to discount a collision between orbital debris and the Space Shuttle Columbia as a contributing factor in its fiery crash Feb. 1.

Confirmation by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Thursday that superheated gas seeped through a hole in the shuttle's exterior lends credence to theories that it was damaged by insulating foam during takeoff or by orbital debris at another time during the 16-day mission.

"Is it possible [that gas seeped in through a hole]? I'd have to say yes, it is possible," NASA flight director Leroy Cain said during a press conference yesterday to discuss what happened inside mission control at Johnson Space Center in Houston during the shuttle's descent.

Investigators said yesterday they are still examining what caused the hole in the shuttle's exterior.

"I don't see how they could rule [orbital debris] out. But then there are myriad things that could be a factor," said Rick Hauck, a former astronaut, chief executive of aerospace firm AXA Space and chairman of a committee that wrote a 1997 report on the risk of orbital debris to shuttles.

Orbital debris has accumulated since 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. A screwdriver, wire carrier and a socket also contribute to the celestial junkyard.

The U.S., Soviet and Russian space agencies are responsible for about 90 percent of the junk.

NASA launched Vanguard I, the second U.S. satellite, in 1958. It functioned for six years becoming space junk in 1964.

One of the most unusual pieces of debris began its accidental orbit in 1965, when Gemini 4 astronaut Edward White lost a glove during the first American spacewalk. It remained in orbit for just a few months.

With the growing volume of junk, collisions between spacecraft and orbital debris become more likely. NASA considers the chance of catastrophic damage to be low right now. Even though shuttles get slammed repeatedly by space junk, the space agency never has been able to point to a single example of debris causing significant damage, said Nick Johnson, NASA chief scientist and program manager for orbital debris. …