An overview of the space shuttle Columbia accident from recovery through reconstruction
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The space shuttle Columbia launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in January of 2003. During ascent, between one and three pieces of material—likely insulating foam from the external tanks—impacted the leading edge of the left side of the orbiter. Upon re-entry back to earth, the Columbia began to disintegrate, leaving an enormous primary debris field stretching over eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Tens of thousands of volunteers were mobilized to help with the recovery of the Columbia remnants. Once the debris was delivered to KSC, several hundred scientists, engineers, and technicians helped analyze the debris and identify its original location on the orbiter. A Materials and Processes Team performed extensive failure analysis and chemical identification to help determine the most likely breach location resultant from the strike that occurred during liftoff, and the path that the impinging plasma generated during re-entry followed once it penetrated the wing of the Columbia. A combination of qualitative and quantitative analytical methods, ranging from radiographic nondestructive examination (NDE) and X-ray diffraction to scanning electron microscope with energy-dispersive spectroscopy (SEM/EDS) and electron probe microanalysis (EPMA), were used to help determine the breach location and the plasma path within the wing itself.
Keywordsaccident investigation chemical analysis energy-dispersive spectroscopy microprobe NASA radiography scanning electron microscopy
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