I have not been posting on this subject for awhile as there has not been any single bit of news significant enough to require it. The weight of the bits and pieces has finally built to the point at which I must return to it.
Little has changed in the basic scenario of the breakup. Most everything I have read has added detail or backed up early scenarios. One of the more interesting bits was the set of internal emails released by NASA. As an engineer myself, I know this sort of “what-if” goes on all the time. In any given team at any given time there will be persons who are overly optimistic or pessimistic. Everyone takes a turn in these roles; everyone has a day of certitude on some new hypothesis. The problem a manager faces is how to figure out whether that person is actually correct on some particular day and some particular issue. Usually the answer is in the middle ground. When it isn’t, you’ve just bet your career,
In this case the pessimist wasn’t pessimistic enough. He was worried about a portside gear door burn through causing a failure of that gear to descend on landing. An aircraft with one gear down is in deep shit. A friend of mine managed to get he and his wife safely on the ground in a Cessna 180 with that problem… but none of the techniques he used would work on a brick that doesn’t so much land as carry out a controlled 220 mph near-crash. Believe me, you really, really do not want to ground loop at those kinds of speeds. I’m sure anyone else out there who has ever landed an airplane by their sweet lonesome would get the same retractive reflex I get at the thought.
The point is, things were far worse than the most polyannish engineers thought.
Some of the other interesting news is confirmation bits were coming off even before the shuttle crossed the Pacific coast. This validates the report we noted from a San Francisco paper, and the first hand report of one of our friends at XCOR in the Mojave Desert. A shuttle tile has been recovered from Nevada. They are searching for more in the area as it is those earliest bits of debris which will tell the greatest tale.
The USAF has a lot more detail on the radar reflection from near the shuttle on Day 1. Something 1×1.3 feet in size was floating near the shuttle shortly after a “major maneuver”. I’ll guess that means a brief blip on the OMS system. If something were loose, that is exactly when you’d expect a seperation.
No one knows what it was. The size and orbital characteristics coupled with the time it appeared suggest to me it is not from a waste water dump and not due to an orbital debris impact. We’re left with either something floating out of the payload bay or something broken during the ascent. Its’ rapid de-orbiting tells us it had a low mass to area ratio. That certainly isn’t true of water at 60 pounds per cubic foot. I cannot tell you much else though. Virtually anything structural on the shuttles is quite light.
I read this as evidence of quite severe damage caused by the foam/ice impact we’ve all seen in slo-mo by this time.
The news I found rather amazing is the recovery of video tape that was in the cabin. Some was burned: I am utterly amazed that it wasn’t all fried, or at the very least heated above it’s Curie point and completely demagnetized. This is a sad experiment to have the results of, but I must admit the details are fascinating and not at all what I had expected. Other than the larger debris footprint, the results are little different from an airliner crash. Some bits are amazingly intact through sheer providence… and nearby parts ravaged beyond belief.
It seems clear another of my early predictions is correct as well. They are never going to find more than a fraction of the vehicle. Tangled bits will be showing up for centuries. Farmers will be plowing them up and selling them to museums and collectors 500 years from now. It may even be centuries, or at least many decades before the last of the major parts turns up.
Columbia is now an eternal part of the Texas landscape and history.