Out of this World Inspection: On-orbit Inspection of the Space Shuttle’s Thermal Protection System

The space shuttle Columbia and her crew suffered a fatal mishap when a piece of foam broke away from the shuttle’s external tank (ET) and impacted the reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) on the leading edge of Columbia’s wing. The impact force was sufficient to fatally damage the RCC. The damage went unnoticed by the crew and MCC during the mission. Upon re-entry through the earth’s atmosphere, the 2700 degree Fahrenheit plasma entered the breach in the RCC and weakened Columbia’s structural integrity, causing the loss of the vehicle. This paper explains an aggressive program that reduced foam liberation from the ET, allowing NASA to successfully complete the shuttle manifest without any further damage to the TPS. The ISS was completed in 2012 and the shuttle was retired.

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