Magazine article Newsweek

Shuttle Disaster: A New 'Leading Theory'

Magazine article Newsweek

Shuttle Disaster: A New 'Leading Theory'

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark Hosenball

The Columbia shuttle investigation is now focusing on a problem that NASA officials say they have not previously encountered: possible serious in-flight damage to ultra-high-tech material used to protect the leading edges of the spacecraft's wings against the heat of re-entry. Sources close to the investigation board say evidence is accumulating to support a theory that the front (leading) edge of the spacecraft's left wing became sufficiently damaged during liftoff or orbit to allow superheated gases, or plasma, to seep through heat-resistant "reinforced carbon-carbon" panels protecting the wing as Columbia began to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Once inside the wing's aluminum structure, the plasma may have begun to damage internal components and the airframe itself. Investigators think plasma ultimately spread into Columbia's left wheel well and later may have burned its way out of the wheel-well door. Because some of the first signals indicating possible problems came from sensors inside the wheel well, investigators initially thought that the events that led to the breakup might have begun there. But they are increasingly convinced that problems with the left wing's leading edge may have cropped up before unusual sensor readings from the wheel well were reported.

Sources close to the accident board indicated that the heat in the leading-edge idea was now a "leading theory." No debris from the shuttle has yet been found west of Texas. But a source close to the investigation suggests that other evidence has begun to convince experts that some debris began "exiting" the shuttle "much earlier," when the craft was still over the Far Western United States. …

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