NASA asks Lehigh engineering students to analyze debris from failed Columbia shuttle

January 29, 2005

Materials science class will use light microscopy to examine 50 pieces recovered on ground

Every year, seniors in Lehigh University's Failure Analysis course peer through microscopes to learn the variety of ways in which different materials deform and crack.
They apply their new skills to specimens from machines, factories and buildings that have been damaged in real-life situations.

This spring, Lehigh's failure-analysis students have a sobering responsibility. They have been chosen by NASA and the Kennedy Space Center to analyze debris from the Columbia space shuttle, which exploded over the southern U.S. on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

More than 83,000 pieces of the shuttle, weighing 85,000 pounds, were recovered by thousands of U.S. Forest Service employees and volunteers walking shoulder to shoulder through the woods of East Texas and Louisiana. The pieces were catalogued and sealed in plastic bags by NASA workers.

In mid-January, 50 of the pieces, still preserved in their plastic bags, arrived in a large crate at Lehigh's Whitaker Laboratory, where they were promptly locked in a small room inside one of the building's labs.

Lehigh is the first university NASA has asked to analyze debris from the Columbia, says Arnold Marder, professor of materials science and engineering and instructor of the Failure Analysis course.

NASA has determined that the explosion that destroyed the Columbia was caused when a piece of insulating foam spalled, or broke away from the fuel tank during launch and struck the shuttle's wing panel. The impact damaged the panel's thermal protection system, exposing the panel to deadly heat when the shuttle re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.

Marder says investigators can learn much more by analyzing the Columbia debris.

"How do materials behave under conditions of hypersonic reentry?," says Marder. "We don't know all the answers."

The spalling of the insulating foam, which is applied in layers to a shuttle's fuel tank, also concerns Marder.

"This spalling has occurred in 80 percent of all 113 shuttle flights," says Marder. "And yet only one shuttle has failed. Why is that?"

Marder, who spent a sabbatical with the Kennedy Space Center last spring, proposed to NASA officials that students in his Failure Analysis class be given the chance to analyze debris from the Columbia.

Lehigh's materials science and engineering department is an ideal site for such a post-mortem, says Marder. The department is one of few in the nation that offers a class in failure analysis. And its microscopy facilities are unrivaled - the department has hosted the world's most comprehensive microscopy short courses for more than 30 years.

Several Lehigh graduate students flew to Florida during Marder's sabbatical to consult with NASA officials over the Columbia investigation, as did Arlan Benscoter, a world-renowned metallographer and research scientist in Lehigh's materials science and engineering department.

The 14 materials science seniors in this spring's Failure Analysis class, after honing their microscopy techniques, will begin analyzing the Columbia debris in early or mid-February, says Marder.

The professor gave his students their formal charge in one of their first classes.

"You are detectives," he said. "Your job will be to examine the failure surface, back-track and determine what were the conditions under which it failed and why it failed."

Source: Lehigh University

Explore further: New light on the complex nature of 'hot Jupiter' atmospheres

Related Stories

Tagish Lake meteorite may have come from Kuiper belt

August 16, 2016

(Phys.org)—A trio of researchers is suggesting that a meteorite retrieved from the surface of a frozen lake in Canada may have come from the Kuiper belt—which if true, would be the first to be so identified. In their ...

Atlantis crew inspects 'thermal protection system'

July 9, 2011

The Atlantis crew on Saturday inspected the craft's thermal protection system, the outer barrier that protects it from the searing heat upon re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, NASA said.

NASA approves new design for Shuttle external tank fitting

July 31, 2004

NASA's Space Shuttle External Tank Project Office is moving ahead with a redesigned bipod fitting. The Project was given the "go" to begin manufacturing and installation of the fitting to the External Tank during a recent ...

Recommended for you

Giant dinosaur footprint discovered in Mongolia desert

September 30, 2016

One of the biggest dinosaur footprints ever recorded has been unearthed in the Gobi Desert, researchers said Friday, offering a fresh clue about the giant creatures that roamed the earth millions of years ago.

Fermi finds record-breaking binary in galaxy next door

September 29, 2016

Using data from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and other facilities, an international team of scientists has found the first gamma-ray binary in another galaxy and the most luminous one ever seen. The dual-star system, ...

Scientists: World likely won't avoid dangerous warming mark

September 29, 2016

A team of top scientists is telling world leaders to stop congratulating themselves on the Paris agreement to fight climate change because if more isn't done, global temperatures will likely hit dangerous warming levels in ...

Game theory research reveals fragility of common resources

September 29, 2016

New research in game theory shows that people are naturally predisposed to over-use "common-pool resources" such as transportation systems and fisheries even if it risks failure of the system, to the detriment of society ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.