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Journal Jack William Bell's Journal: I called it on the Columbia disaster! 5

More than four months ago I analyzed the sensor data released by NASA and posted my findings, with an animation, to my web site and this /. journal entry. Subsequently the early findings of NASA and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) seemed to prove me right, although I felt it was too early to claim victory.

However the CAIB is now endorsing the same theory I proposed way back in Febuary! Namely that one of the leading-edge carbon-carbon block shield panels had failed. I specificially highlighted panels 6, 7 and 8 on my analysis page and said:

The failure mode itself might very well turn out to be quite minor at first, perhaps losing one of the in-between bits, or the bolts might not have allowed proper expansion. Perhaps some impact may have cracked and/or completely destroyed an entire shielding block. No matter, because the temperatures we are talking about are enough to cut through the aluminum structure of the wing like a hot knife through butter. This 'blow-torch' would not only have allowed hot air into the wing, but would have scattered molten metal droplets about as well. This scenario perfectly explains the sensor data to my, admittedly, uneducated eyes.

To quote from the Chicago Tribune article linked above:

A large chunk of foam peeled off the so-called "bipod" area of the shuttle's external tank 81.7 seconds into launch and slammed into the edge of the wing. . . The best analysis to date indicates that it struck near two of the 22 insulating carbon panels that cover the wing's edge. The panels are numbered 1 to 22, and investigators think the foam hit in the region of panels 7 and 8. . . On the Columbia's second day in orbit, a piece of the left wing somehow came off after the shuttle executed a routine maneuver. The mystery object is likely a piece from carbon panel 8 or panel 9; or a piece of the seal between them. . . This missing segment allowed hot gases to begin penetrating the wing as the shuttle dropped below 400,000 feet above Earth on Feb. 1. The heat quickly burned through the wing's aluminum spar and progressively destroyed inside components and electrical wiring.

I would say "I told you so!" but that is so lame. Still, how come I could figure this out by myself within a few weeks of the disaster from a simple animation of the sensor data while the 'experts' waffled and beat around the bush for months?

Update: Based on some recent email I guess my complaint isn't clear enough. I am not saying that the 'experts' didn't figure out what had happened. In fact I would say it is a certainty that some engineers at NASA were way ahead of me. My problem is that the entire process was so closed that we didn't hear a peep about this scenario for months, and the media (expecially the ones with expertise like Aerospace Weekly) didn't dig into the data on their own like I did. All in all I would say this is yet another symptom of the bureaucratic malaise that has made NASA what it is today: Inept, inefficient and more concerned about covering their ass than getting the job done...

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I called it on the Columbia disaster!

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  • It is unfortunate that the event ever happened of course, but I would like to say "Good Call!" on your now-proven theory.
  • good call.

    Remember what I said about Richard Feynman with his cup of ice-water and rubber gasket material. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to do rocket science. (Though being one helps one avoid being blown up in your garage rocket workshop.)

    And I see that you're getting about as much media play as Feynman got when he gave NASA its comeuppance.
  • Triple checking their findings takes time. It would be a big embarassment for NASA to publish findings only to find they needed to publicly correct themselves a few months down the road.

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