Former U professor searches for answers to Columbia tragedy

By By Caitlin York

By Caitlin York

Most Americans remember watching with intense amazement and shock as the space shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas during its re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.

It was James Walker, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas among other scientists who were called upon to find an answer to the tragedy.

Walker is a former U professor in the department of mathematics.

Immediately following the tragedy, theories were flying about as to what caused the failure of the space shuttle as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists worked together to try and find a plausible answer to what could have happened.

Walker was one of the scientists who found a solution to the failure of the shuttle.

The former math professor returned to the U to talk to a small group of math and science students about how he began his research and how it eventually led to answer the space shuttle tragedy.

During Walker’s lecture, he said the main question that led him to begin his research was, “How do projectiles go through armors?” In his research he successfully modeled the penetration that occurs when projectiles enter thick metal armor.

The illustration was named the Walker-Anderson model and is used for experiments dealing with the penetration of projectiles.

Two days following the accident of the space shuttle, researchers from the Southwest Research Institute were called to come to Texas and begin their roles of finding answers to the cause of the fatal crash.

The initial thought of what caused the re-entry of the space shuttle to go awry actually came from video of the shuttle’s ascent into outer space. What was seen was a piece of insulation foam breaking off and penetrating the left wing of the vehicle.

The three pieces of the shuttle that were initially looked at were the main landing gear door, lead edge panel and the wing acreage, according to Walker.

He added that experiments needed to be done in order to find answers. The main landing gear door from the Enterprise and the compressed gas gun were recreated to see whether or not the penetration could cause the damage that cut short Columbia’s journey home.

The impact of the nitrogen gas hitting the landing gear proved minimal, concluding there would not have been any projectile breakup. This meant, from the data received, that the foam hitting the gear was not responsible for the failure that occurred on the Columbia that Saturday.

Walker said more research had to be done to see what else could have gone wrong. Since the impact on the tile was proven to not have caused the failure, investigations turned to panels 6,7 and 8 of the left wing. Fiberglass panels, also from the Enterprise, were used in practice shots. The first panel used in the experiments was panel 6. There was a cracked rib that became prominent with the impact of the foam. It did not seem to be a problem that would have any kind of an effect on the panel itself. The damage was again thought insufficient to cause the loss of the vehicle.

Because the impact on both 6 and 7 seemed to be insignificant, it seemed as though the answer could remain in panel 8, and it did, according to Walker. The main goal of the scientists working on this case was to find what was impact enough to cause the shuttle to break into pieces during re-entry.

When the foam was projected at panel 8 of the demo left wing, a big hole was left in its track.

Once the space shuttle was safely into orbit, a small piece on it was reported to have been seen breaking away from the shuttle.

If the theory from the experiment is correct, then the piece could have been the portion that went in the place of the big hole, caused by the foam.

The conclusion to all of the research done by Walker and his colleagues was that the impact and damage neither occurred on the underside of the wing nor the tile. The space shuttle was lost due to the impact of the insulation foam penetrating the RRC panel 8.

This caused the shuttle to become extremely difficult to control during re-entry, which soon led to the shuttle’s tumble to Earth.

At the end of the seminar, students were anxious to know more about future flights into space and about why the failure was not seen initially.

One student asked why there seemed to be no impact damage directly after the penetration of the foam to Panel 8.

Walker said, “Pressure is reduced at 66,000 feet.” The explanation meant that there was not enough pressure in the atmosphere to cause the piece to break away from the shuttle.

This would come later while the shuttle was in orbit, according to Walker.

The next flight into space is currently scheduled in May. It will have been almost two and a half years since the last flight.

Walker said that the last space shuttle flight is scheduled for the year 2010, but because there is still some much to be done, that flight remains up in the air.

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