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Wed, Jul 23, 2003

Columbia Disaster Came Down To A Single Conversation

Yet, NASA Manager Defends Her Decision

Seldom in the course of history is a single, heartwrenching tragedy so solidly linked to a precipitating moment.

Yet, right there on audio tape, recorded during a nationwide conference call, is the voice of Linda Ham (right), a shuttle manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston (TX):

"(T)he material properties and density of the foam wouldn't do any damage," she says in a conversation with engineer Don McCormick.

With that turn of words, Columbia was doomed, five days after a chunk of insulating foam from the orbiter's external fuel tank slammed into the shuttle's left wing leading edge. That strike, according to preliminary information from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, most likely allowed superheated gasses to enter the wing structure, leading to the shuttle's disintegration as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere.

"Really, I don't think there is much we can do," Ham said in the January 21st conference call. "It's not really a factor during the flight because there isn't much we can do about it."

Judgement Day

Tuesday, a tearful Linda Ham speculated for reporters in Houston on what might have been. "We were all trying to do the right thing. All along, we were basing our decisions on the best information that we had at the time," she said. "Nobody wanted to do any harm to anyone. Obviously, nobody wants to hurt the crew. These people are our friends. They're our neighbors. We run with them, work out in the gym with them. My husband is an astronaut. I don't believe anyone is at fault for this."

Ham acknowledged she could have ordered American spy satellites to take detailed photos of the possible damage to Columbia's left wing.

But she didn't. Why?

She says none of the engineers who wanted the photos actually approached her for them. On the conference call tape, Don McCormick mentions in passing a request from other NASA and Boeing engineers for more "parametric" data on the possible wing damage. But Ham brushed it off in the conference call. "I really can't find the source (of the request), so I don't think we need to pursue this."

It was Ham's first public statement since the February 1st Columbia tragedy. At one point, she choked up, borrowing a handkerchief to wipe away her tears.

Gallantly, Ham took responsibility Tuesday for the decision to disregard possible damage to Columbia's wing. "We all heard the discussions," she said. "None of us felt that the analysis (of the danger posed by the foam debris strike) was faulty. It ended that day. It never came up again. Never. Not in a hallway, not in the mission management team."

Had They Known...

It did come up again, but long after it was too late. The CAIB has found that block of foam, twice the size and twice the weight of foam debris that struck the underside of Atlantis's wing in October, 2002, almost certainly punched a sizeable hole in Columbia's wing. Even worse in terms of second-guessing, CAIB Chairman Harold Gehman (Admiral, USN, ret.) contradicted statements made on the day of the crash from then-shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore. He told reporters there was absolutely nothing that could have been done, even if NASA had known there was a potentially fatal error aboard the orbiter. In May, Gehman said Atlantis could almost certainly have been launched in time to effect a rescue mission.

If only Ham, McCormick, Dittemore and others on that conference call had known then, what they know now...



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