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Shuttle Columbia: Sometimes, it's little things that get you

Improper application of insulation to main fuel tank cited as cause of damage that doomed Columbia:

The foam that struck the space shuttle Columbia soon after liftoff -- resulting in the deaths of seven astronauts -- was defective, the result of applying insulation to the shuttle's external fuel tank, NASA said on Friday.

The official investigation into the accident, conducted by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, left the matter open, since none of the foam or the fuel tank could be recovered for study.

A suitcase-sized chunk of foam from an area of the tank known as the left bipod, one of three areas where struts secure the orbiter to the fuel tank during liftoff, broke off 61 seconds into the flight on Jan. 16 of last year. It gouged a large hole in Columbia's left wing.


Now, here's the scary part:

...Otte said NASA concluded after extensive testing that the process of applying some sections of foam by hand with spray guns was at fault.

Gaps, or voids, were often left, and tests done since the Columbia accident have shown liquid hydrogen could seep into those voids. After launch, the gas inside the voids starts to heat up and expand, causing large pieces of insulation to pop off.

NASA said this happens on about 60 percent of its shuttle launches.
(Emphasis mine)

Now, the questions: Did NASA realize that this situation was a disaster looking for a place to happen? If so, did it just make the assumption that the probabilities of foam striking the wing was just too small to fret about? Why wasn't this redesign underway a long time ago?

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