I have been threatening to do a piece on the Space Shuttles. This is sort of going to be it. Some rudimentary background. February 1, 2003, Shuttle Columbia breaks up over Texas re-entering the atmosphere. After an extensive investigation, NASA came to the conclusion that a piece of foam fell off the main tank and hit the shuttle during launch.
“During the test, the 1 1/2-pound piece of foam cracked the reinforced carbon panel and knocked it out of alignment, creating a gap of less than one-tenth of an inch between the panel and an adjoining seal. The crack was at least 3 inches long. “
Now, that sounds convincing enough. But I have asked the same question for two years, “How can a vehicle designed to withstand speeds of 20,000 mph while being hit by space debris and such be rendered inoperable by foam?” Although NASA did a good job of explaining how the foam could damage the shuttle, it has never addressed the question that if foam can destroy the shuttle, couldn’t just about anything else?
Well, I’ve sort of found some answers. In 1997, due to environmental concerns and agreements, NASA switched from a freon based foam, to an environmentally friendly foam. The first launch with the new foam showed that 308 tiles were damaged as opposed to 40 on the average flights before it. NASA, in their post-Columbia report, felt it was how the foam was applied, not the foam itself. Since the increase in damaged tiles was observed, NASA has experimented with several ways of applying the foam. As the launch of Discovery showed, they still don’t have it right. NASA has an exemption from the EPA to go back to using the original foam, maybe they should ponder it. But, that still doesn’t answer my question of why the shuttle seems so fragile.
A theory I have had is maybe the shuttle isn’t as fragile as it seems. If something else went wrong with Columbia, and it wasn’t the loss of a hand full of tiles due to foam, then it’s not quite as fragile as it sounds. Enter the alternative theory that has been circulating since 2003 but totally discounted by NASA to date:
Research carried out after the discovery of positive lightning in the 1970s showed that positive lightning bolts are typically six to ten times more powerful than negative bolts, last around ten times longer, and can strike several miles distant from the clouds. During a positive lighting strike, huge quantities of ELF and VLF radio waves are generated.
As a result of their power, positive lightning strikes are considerably more dangerous. At the present time aircraft are not designed to withstand such strikes, since their existence was unknown at the time standards were set, and the dangers unappreciated until the destruction of a glider in 1999. It has since been suggested that it may have been positive lightning that caused the crash of Pan Am flight 214 in 1963. Positive lighting is now also thought to be responsible for many forest fires.
Positive lightning has also been shown to trigger the occurrence of upper atmospheric lightning. It tends to occur more frequently in winter storms and at the end of a thunderstorm.
NASA does not know much about what happens in the region Columbia was in when it disintegrated. Little real research has been done in the region between “sky” and space. One thing they have observed are the very powerful “blue streaks” in that region of sky. Which, leads to this:
If this is truly the case, then the shuttle is not quite as fragile as it sounds being downed by foam. There’s no technology I am aware of that man has developed yet to deal with mega-powerful positive lightning. If it were a lightning strike, it would mean NASA is dealing with a phenomena it knows little to nothing about, and therefore their answer would have to be something along the lines of “We don’t know how to deal with that”. And that is not an answer I expect to ever hear from NASA. But, what it would mean is my faith in shuttle technology would be a lot higher than it is right now. I mean, come on, foam? Sure, they can eventually figure out how to keep the foam on the tank, but that still doesn’t make me feel a lot better knowing that with all the space junk and natural space litter floating around up there that’s made of a lot harder stuff than foam that the shuttle is much of a vehicle I would ever want to take a ride in. Attribute it to lightning. I know the chances of getting hit by lightning. At the very least, explore this option a lot more. If this phenomena is actually prevalent on Earth, it’s going to be something to deal with in space as well. Maybe not here, but who knows on Mars?