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Space Shuttle Columbia

Columbia probe seeks better monitoring

From Philip Chien

A test performed earlier this month  replicated the blow from debris that occurred 82 seconds into Columbia's liftoff in January.
A test performed earlier this month replicated the blow from debris that occurred 82 seconds into Columbia's liftoff in January.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- NASA needs to provide launch managers with live images of a space shuttle's external fuel tank after it separates from the vehicle, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said Wednesday.

The large external tank holds the fuel the shuttle uses during its 8.5-minute ride into space. After the tank is depleted, it is ejected and disintegrates as it falls to the ocean.

If a high-resolution or digital video system had been in place for Columbia's launch January 16, NASA engineers might have seen a large chunk of insulation was missing from the external tank.

That piece of insulation, which fell off 82 seconds after launch, hit the leading edge of Columbia's left wing and caused enough damage to bring about the shuttle's destruction when it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere February 1.

Film cameras mounted on the bottom of the shuttle take engineering photos of the tank as it falls away from the shuttle. But because they are film cameras, engineers have to wait until the shuttle returns to Earth to view the images.

NASA has already been examining what it would take to replace one of the film cameras with a high resolution digital or video camera that could transmit the pictures to Earth during the shuttle mission.

The investigation board also urged NASA to "provide a capability to obtain and downlink high-resolution images of the underside of the orbiter leading edge system and forward section of both wings' thermal protection system."

Almost all shuttle flights will now go to the international space station, and NASA is already examining using the existing cameras on the space station to take photos of the shuttle before it docks.

"Very little engineering quality, on-board imaging of the [external tank] was available for STS-107 [the Columbia launch]," the board said in a written statement Wednesday.

Most of the engineering views of the shuttle launch come from still and video cameras within 20 miles of the launch pad.

For Columbia's launch, the camera that would have shown the damaged area with the most detail was out of focus.

NASA was aware that contractor Johnson Controls had the camera "soft focused" before launch, but let it go because documentation photography was not considered critical.

Among earlier recommendations made by the board were to require multiple high-resolution cameras for the launch and to consider having camera platforms aboard ships and aircraft to film the shuttle from additional angles during launch.

The board's final report is expected at the end of August.

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