Ground based impact testing of Orbiter thermal protection system materials in support of the Columbia accident investigation


On January 16, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia (OV-102) was launched for a nominal 16-day mission of microgravity research. Fifteen days and 20 hours after launch, and just 16 minutes before its scheduled landing, the OV-102 vehicle disintegrated during its descent. The entire crew was lost. Film and video cameras located around the launch complex captured images of the vehicle during its ascent. Of note were data that showed a piece of debris strike the port wing at approximately 82 sec after lift-off (T+82). As resulting analysis would show, the source of the debris was the left bipod ramp of the Shuttle external tank. This foam debris struck the Orbiter leading edge at sufficient velocity to breech the thermal protection system (TPS). During reentry at the end of the mission, the hot plasma impinged inside the Orbiter wing and aerodynamic forces ultimately failed the wing structure. This thesis documents the activities conducted to evaluate the effects of foam impact on Orbiter TPS. These efforts were focused on, to the greatest extent practical, replicating the impact event during the STS-107 mission ascent. This thesis fully documents the test program development, methodology, results, analysis, and conclusions to the degree that future investigators can reproduce the tests and understand the basis for decisions made during the development of the tests

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This paper was published in DSpace at Rice University.

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