CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.--The leading edge of Space Shuttle Columbia's left wing may have been crippled even before being hit by insulating foam from
the ship's external fuel tank during launch, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) announced on Wednesday. Designed to take the brunt of
heat buildup during the shuttle's plunge into the atmosphere, the gray, curved sections of wing are made of multilayered reinforced carbon-carbon
(RCC). Temperatures on the leading edges of the shuttle wings can reach 3000ƒF during re-entry. Apparently, despite the age of the shuttle fleet and
the fact that most of the panels are original--about 20 years old--NASA executed analysis during in-depth inspections that usually are performed only
years apart. Between flights, technicians simply carried out visual and tap checks to ensure there were no gaps between the panels' inner layers.
"This part of the leading edge saw the hottest heat," Mark Tanner, a mechanical engineer, told members of the CAIB. "I think this tells us a small
story." Tanner and Gregory Kovacs, an electronics professor at Stanford University, pointed out the great amount of damage sustained by Columbia's
left wing as opposed to the right one.
Oxidation flaws on Space Shuttle Atlantis's RCC protective panels.
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