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Confirmed: Environmental Laws Killed Columbia Crew

The 7 members of the Shuttle Columbia crew lost their lives because of a needless environmental law. Read these cuts from today's report carefully:

NASA Identifies Foam Flaw That Killed Astronauts

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The foam that struck the space shuttle Columbia soon after liftoff -- resulting in the deaths of seven astronauts -- was defective, the result of applying insulation to the shuttle's external fuel tank, NASA said on Friday. ...

A suitcase-sized chunk of foam from an area of the tank known as the left bipod, one of three areas where struts secure the orbiter to the fuel tank during liftoff, broke off 61 seconds into the flight. It gouged a large hole in Columbia's left wing. ...

The fault apparently was not with the chemical makeup of the foam, which insulates the tanks and prevents ice from forming on the outside when 500,000 gallons (1.9 million liters) of supercold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen are pumped aboard hours before liftoff.

Instead, Otte said NASA concluded after extensive testing that the process of applying some sections of foam by hand with spray guns was at fault....

NASA has made extensive changes in the foam-application process, but still has tests and perhaps more procedural changes before the tanks can be certified for flight.

"It was not the fault of the guys on the floor; they were just doing the process we gave them," Otte said. "I agree with the (accident investigation board) that we did not have a real understanding of the process. Our process for putting foam on was giving us a product different than what we certified."

This report is devastating when you know the rest of the story.

Foam falling off the tank is nothing new. It was first documented in 1981. But it greatly increased in 1997. You see, in 1997 NASA was forced by environmental regulations to use a different method to apply the foam to the tank. The old method used Freon and we all know the environmentalists consider it the worst substance ever created. (except maybe DDT) So NASA was forced to use a different method than the engineers had originally called for.

Following the change, the November 1997 mission had 308 ceramic tiles damaged. The usual number was 40. Since that time NASA has tried to improve the method of applying foam but it has not been easy. Indeed, Lockheed's Charles Martin said at Tulane University that compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency's rules on the space shuttle project was "much more difficult than anticipated."

Rather than making the shuttle as safe as possible we made it as politically correct as possible. That cost 7 astronauts their lives-- not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars.

While there are many reasons for NASA to gloss over the Freon connection, the most obvious is that NASA probably could have gotten a waiver to the rule if they tried. Of course the environmentalists would have gone nuts and they represent a large hunk of NASA's supporters.

Worst of all, Congress banned freon having no idea what it really does in the atmosphere. Many people have theories but we have no proof it attacks ozone at all. (and anyone telling you they know what freon does in the atmosphere is lying to you) Even if we knew that it attacked Ozone we still don't know what that means in real terms. It's all conjecture, but we banned it anyway.

Congress routinely bans things because they MIGHT hurt the environment while paying little or no attention to the obvious benefits of the product-- even if that benefit is millions of lives saved.

DDT, which was also banned based on poor science, is now coming back because banning it caused millions of people to die from malaria.

As long as we make policy based on environmental mythology rather than science, people will continue to die. We can add the names' of the 7 Columbia astronauts to that list.

UPDATE: Below the fold

UPDATE: Maybe before people comment people should read this. Google really is easy to use...


MIAMI - NASA engineers have known for at least five years that insulating foam could peel off the space shuttle's external fuel tanks and damage the vital heat-protecting tiles that the space agency says were the likely ``root cause'' of Saturday's shuttle disaster.

The Jan. 16 launch wasn't the first time that Columbia's fragile tiles were pummeled by chunks of foam. It happened on the spacecraft's first launch, and again, more severely, in 1997.

NASA and other researchers have been studying the problem of foam ``shedding'' from the shuttle's giant external fuel tanks for years, but the space agency's managers never considered the problem a serious threat to flight safety before Saturday's catastrophe.

The shuttle's towering tanks are covered with sprayed-on insulation that's designed to keep their super-cooled nitrogen and oxygen fuels at the necessary temperature.

Engineers typically find some damage to the orbiter's 24,000 ceramic tiles after missions, averaging about 40 ``hits.'' The tiles lining the craft's belly can withstand searing 2,300-degree heat during re-entry, but they are relatively fragile and easily damaged by flying debris or by ice chunks that form on the fuel tanks.

1997 flight had 308 hits

NASA engineers who examined Columbia after a 1997 flight found 308 hits, according to a Dec. 23, 1997, report by NASA engineer Greg Katnik, a mechanical systems engineer at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., whose team is responsible for the shuttle's external fuel tank, thermal protection shielding and other critical systems.

An investigation traced much of the damage to a ``massive material loss on the side of the external tank,'' Katnik wrote in an article in ``Space Team Online'' that was reprinted on a space-related Web site.

Katnik called the damage ``significant'' -- 132 hits were larger than an inch in diameter, and some slashes were as long as 15 inches. More critically, some penetrated three- quarters of the way into the two-inch deep tiles, close to the orbiter's aluminum skin, which can burn at only 350 degrees.

In all, more than 100 tiles had to be replaced.

``Foam cause damage to a ceramic tile?!,'' Katnik wrote. ``That seems unlikely, however, when that foam is combined with a flight velocity between speeds of Mach 2 to Mach 4, it becomes a projectile with incredible damage potential.''

Investigators are now examining the issue as they try to understand why Columbia disintegrated more than 200,000 feet over Texas, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

During the Jan. 16 launch, cameras recorded a fragment of insulating foam from an external fuel tank nicking Columbia's left wing. NASA staff and experts studied the event but concluded that it did not threaten the lives of the astronauts aboard Columbia.

Yet with the shuttle just minutes from Florida, the orbiter exploded.

While NASA stressed that it has not reached any definitive conclusions, the agency now says that nearly three pounds of hurtling insulation may have shattered the protective tiles.

``We're making the assumption that the external tank was the root cause of the accident,'' said Ron Dittemore, the shuttle's program manager.

Environmental issue

In his 1997 report, Katnik noted that the 1997 mission, STS-87, was the first to use a new method of ``foaming'' the tanks, one designed to address NASA's goal of using environmentally friendly products. The shift came as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was ordering many industries to phase out the use of Freon, an aerosol propellant linked to ozone depletion and global warming.

As recently as last September, a retired engineering manager for Lockheed Martin, the contractor that assembles the tanks, told a conference in New Orleans that developing a new foam to meet environmental standards had ``been much more difficult than anticipated.''

The retired Lockheed engineer, who helped design the thermal protection system, said the switch from a foam based on Freon -- also known as CFC-11 -- has ``resulted in unanticipated program impacts, such as foam loss during flight.''

In fact, he noted, the hits to Columbia on that 1997 mission, the same one Katnik studied, forced NASA to replace nearly 11 times more damaged tiles than it had after a previous mission that had used Freon-based foam.

NOTE: I wrote most of the bottom part just 2 days after the shuttle crashed, well before all this was confirmed. I did not save the hyperlinks back then but the original sources were:

Hampton Roads Daily Press,VA
Newark Star Ledger,NJ
Florida Today,FL

As always, google is your friend. (freon+ shuttle+tank)


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Comments (16)

Isn't it NASA's job to find... (Below threshold)

Isn't it NASA's job to find a way to both comply with the EPA's regulations and ensure the safety of its astronauts? I find it difficult to believe that it's beyond their abilities to do both.

Bottom line: if NASA knew there was a problem with their foam-spraying methods, they needed to keep the shuttle grounded until they fixed them. I think it's a little mean-spirited to blame the environmental movement here.

It's "mean-spirited?" ... (Below threshold)

It's "mean-spirited?"


Meaningless environmental laws kill 7 people and you reply by calling me "mean-spirited" for pointing it out.

I'm glad to know your sense of outrage is well placed.

Wait -- I thought we weren'... (Below threshold)

Wait -- I thought we weren't sure whether the law was meaningless or not (e.g. "anyone telling you they know what freon does in the atmosphere is lying to you").

The only way a law is going to kill someone is via a severe paper-cut (unless it's some kind of new-fangled anthropomorphic law). If this foam-spraying issue is indeed what led to the Columbia tragedy, shouldn't we ask why NASA wasn't able to operate safely within the limits of the law rather than simply blaming the law (or, more generally, an entire political movement)?

As I said in my previous comment, if the EPA's regulations made it impossible -- or even terribly difficult -- for NASA to provide for the safety of its crew, then NASA had no business sending the crew into space until they came up with a better solution.

It's like a car company installing faulty safety belts in a vehicle and, when someone dies in an accident, saying, "The government requires us to put those safety belts in there, but darn it, we never quite figured out how to do it right!" Would you blame the law or the manufacturer?

Upon further reflection, ma... (Below threshold)

Upon further reflection, maybe the seat belt example isn't the best in the world, but I think you can catch my drift. ;)

No, I really can't. <... (Below threshold)

No, I really can't.

You are doing your best to ignore one giant fact.

Without this law, 7 people would be alive today.

Silly me, I'm more concerned about the 7 people and their families than I am a "political movement" as you call it.

Paul, you are way off on th... (Below threshold)
BIll K:

Paul, you are way off on this one.

It is a cheap and petty way to attack the environment. You think if NASA said, we can't send this shuttle up or people or die nothing would have been done? Do you think NASA would have sent the shuttle up if they thought people would die?

These people didn't die because of the enviromentalists, they died because the shuttle wasn't put together properly. To blame it on the environmental law that changed the way they applied tiles is akin to blaming the tile company itself for not having strong enough tiles (even though NASA picked them) or blaming the air for knocking off the tile.

Even in section of the report you site NASA admits that this was a problem before the law changed. Who is to say one of the 40 tiles that fell on average before 1997 couldn't have done the same thing?

Plain and simple this accident could have happened even without this law, as the same problem was occuring just at a lesser frequency, and NASA didn't think it was a big enough deal to ground missions because of it.

It is a cheap and petty ... (Below threshold)

It is a cheap and petty way to attack the environment

Can you tell me exactly where I attacked the environment? Sigh.

You are the one off base. Follow that google link and do your homework.

A stupid environmental law killed 7 people.

It's a damn shame you environmental people have more outrage aimed at me for pointing it out than at the law that killed 7 people.

Telling. Very, very telling.

I'm with Paul on this one. ... (Below threshold)

I'm with Paul on this one. The EPA has acted on too many things with obviously very little oversight from any other branch of government. They've significantly driven up the price of vehicles with emissions regulations and air conditioning changes. R134a is not a particularly effective refrigerant, and anyone who remember R12 days can confirm this. For God's sake, the EPA is soon going to require water cooled engines and catalytic converters on Motorcycles! They've changed the propellant in everything from hairspray to air dusters, and they've created scores of problems for municipalities trying to dispose of rubbage. To what end? L.A. still has smog, and we're told that global warming and ozone depletion is still a problem.

From 1997 when the new regulations were enacted until 2003's disaster was quite a long span of time to work on this problem, but before you condemn NASA (of whom I'm no particular fan, either), for not grounding the shuttle until they could find an acceptable alternative method, why not ask the EPA what would have been wrong with letting NASA continue with what worked and what was safe until they could develop and test adequately a new method that didn't use freon? That's the EPA's mode of operation, though--pass regulations and let the consumers and corporations deal with it.

And Bill, the "same problem at a lesser frequency" is a gross understatment. An average of 40 lost or damaged tiles vs 308 lost or damaged is a significant increase by any measure.

Did you not just read the s... (Below threshold)
Bill K:

Did you not just read the story you just posted?

NASA and other researchers have been studying the problem of foam ``shedding'' from the shuttle's giant external fuel tanks for years, but the space agency's managers never considered the problem a serious threat to flight safety before Saturday's catastrophe.


In his 1997 report, Katnik noted that the 1997 mission, STS-87, was the first to use a new method of ``foaming'' the tanks, one designed to address NASA's goal of using environmentally friendly products

The EPA said don't use Freon, not kill people. NASA KNEW THAT THIS WAS A PROBLEM. They just didn't think it was a serious one. How is that the fault of the EPA. If the EPA tells you you are not allowed to burn your tires and you decide to get rid of your tires you will eat the rubber and end up dying from it, is that the EPA's fault. The EPA set a restriction (or it looks like NASA took the lead before it was restricted) and NASA choose a solution that they knew to had problems (just like the old method). The problems turned out to be more severe than thought. That is not the EPA's fault, it is NASA's fault. And, yes, 308 is a good deal more than 40, but it only takes one so the risk was always there. Way before NASA changed the installing methods.

To blame the EPA for the seven deaths is ridiculous. If you are going to go that far, why not blame every President before this accident for not aboloshing the EPA. Blame the fore fathers for setting up the country in the first place. Blame the British for being dicks, causing the fore fathers to set up the country, causing presidents to be born, causing the EPA, causing rules to protect the environment, causing NASA mistakes, causing this accident. Hell blame God for creating man which led to all of this in the first place.

By the way, the last three paragaphs in your second link are the following:

Documenting foam failures

Lockheed Martin's own mission reports, however, document a steady stream of foam failures during shuttle missions:

On Mission 1 in 1981, Lockheed wrote: ``The external tank had several areas of its thermal protection system de-bond after the first Flight Readiness Firing.''

In June 1995 on Mission 70, Lockheed said it took more than a month ``to repair damage inflicted on (the external tank) by woodpeckers.''

Are those two the EPA's fault?

Sorry Paul, I'm with you on... (Below threshold)

Sorry Paul, I'm with you on junk science driving environmental laws being a problem.

However, if they knew the new way wasn't working as far back as '97 then whoever made the call to press on without fixing the foam loss is ultimately responsible.

Yes...the environmental law caused the initial problem...but once the problem was identified...it stopped being an environmental issue and became an engineering problem that wasn't solved.

The EPA said don't use F... (Below threshold)

The EPA said don't use Freon, not kill people. NASA KNEW THAT THIS WAS A PROBLEM. They just didn't think it was a serious one. How is that the fault of the EPA

Bill at the end of the day you can not avoid a fact.

7 people are dead who would not be had we not banned freon.

The fact that others events could have prevented the disaster also, is self evident. If they never flew, they never would have had the problem etc.

Spin it any way you want. We banned a substance on junk science and the result of that action is that 7 people are dead.

No amount of your protestation will change that.

Paul, in articles you refer... (Below threshold)
Billy K:

Paul, in articles you reference NASA states they had problems with the tiles and foam BEFORE 1997, just to a lesser degree. To say that this accident could not have happened without the freon ban is nonsense. It was a problem and it became a bigger problem. At any time though it could have been catestrophic.

If you have to dig this deep to bitch about something then so be it, but don't act like your assertation is some sort of undeniable fact. It is hardly a slam dunk.

NASA pre 1997 was playing Russian roulette with 1 bullet, post 97 they added another. Either way there was a risk. NASA should have fixed the problem.

Freon is chemically inert (... (Below threshold)
Geoff Dean:

Freon is chemically inert (safe to use) and so its not surprising that it finds its way to the ionisphere.
There it was accused of destroying the ozone layer which has lasted for billions of years ie not so easily got rid of. Some scientists made fame and fortune by accusing freon, something that made them uninclined to consider opposing evidence - not a scientific attitude. Of course even with freon banned the ozone layers continued to drop but they weren't going to point that out!
Freon had nobody to support it , the fridge manufacturers for example could sell many new machines if the old freon-using ones were banned.
The main sufferers were in places like India where the old cheap effective fridges saved thousands of lives by keeping food fresh.

Of course both the EPA and ... (Below threshold)

Of course both the EPA and NASA are at fault. The EPA required a new foam application process based on junk science. If they hadn't done that, nothing that followed would have happened. It's kind of like someone hitting you with a car and breaking your leg and sending you to the hospital. When you die in the hospital from incompetent medical attention, the guy in the car shrugs and says it's the doctors' fault.
This also reminds me of the stories I read about the World Trade Center changing its construction methods half way up because of asbestos junk science. That may have caused the buildings to fall when struck by the airplanes. But the damage from changing the foam application process on the shuttle was much more predictable than the WTC failure, BECAUSE of the previous shedding. If you have a foam problem, why in the world would you listen to EPA morons and change your foam application formula, when environmentalists have been nothing but wrong on everything from global cooling to acid rain to the ozone "hole" to global warming and when seven people's lives and billions of dollars are at stake?

NASA pre 1997 was playin... (Below threshold)

NASA pre 1997 was playing Russian roulette with 1 bullet, post 97 they added another. Either way there was a risk. NASA should have fixed the problem.

Billy this is the strongest argument you have made but it is still flawed... Here's why.

You are assuming that a single damaged tile could down the orbiter. That is not the case. There needs to be a significant amount of damage. Consider this:

(Start blockquote)
Chunks of insulation had struck shuttles many times before. Dozens of the thermal insulating tiles that protect the shuttle from the heat of reentry have been damaged by pieces of insulating foam. But this time may have been different, for the piece of foam appears to have been larger than in prior incidents.


Damaged tiles are much more acceptable than lost tiles. The tiles are not bolted in place. Instead, they are cemented to the shuttle's thin aluminum skin. A missing tile can expose the aluminum skin of the shuttle to nearly 3,000 degrees during reentry. Tiles on the upper side of the spacecraft stay much cooler than those on the bottom, which take the full brunt of reentry.

Shuttles have often returned home with damaged tiles. Typically, around 40 tiles were damaged by ice and other debris breaking away from the huge fuel tank. The number of damaged tiles increased dramatically in 1997 when Columbia landed with 308 damaged tiles. Some had gouges that nearly penetrated the 2.5-inch thick tiles.
(close blockquote)

Your odds go up (or down depending) exponentially not geometrically.

Clearly there is a threshold of acceptable wear. The engineers*thought* they were below it. By definition they were not.

Foam is not the only thing that damages tiles. In this case it was the killer:

A suitcase-sized chunk of foam from an area of the tank known as the left bipod, one of three areas where struts secure the orbiter to the fuel tank during liftoff, broke off 61 seconds into the flight. It gouged a large hole in Columbia's left wing.

Clearly 40 damaged tiles is nowhere near a hole gouged in the wing.

Billy if you read many of the stories NASA says that if they used the original formula they never would have had a problem.

I see the argument you are trying to make but it is fatally flawed.

So NASA responded to an EPA... (Below threshold)

So NASA responded to an EPA rule by re-engineering the procedure in a way that caused the deaths of 7? And you blame the EPA?

I blame Nixon. Without the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the establishment of the EPA in 1969, none of this would have happened. That's why, come November, I'm not voting for Nixon.






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