WASHINGTON -- Even as NASA engineers debated possible damage, a flight director e-mailed Columbia's astronauts to say there was "absolutely no concern" that breakaway foam that struck the space shuttle might endanger its safe return. The shuttle's commander cheerily replied, "Thanks a million!"
Flight director J.S. "Steve" Stich conveyed his assurance to Columbia's commander and pilot on Jan. 23, according to documents disclosed Monday. At the time, engineers inside NASA continued to debate and study whether insulating foam that smashed against Columbia's wing on liftoff might have fatally damaged materials protecting the shuttle during its fiery descent.
Such materials included the gray-colored wing panels made from a material called reinforced carbon, known within NASA as RCC, and insulating tiles covering other parts of the spacecraft.
"Experts have reviewed the high speed photography and there is no concern for RCC or tile damage," Stich wrote to Columbia's commander, Rick D. Husband, and pilot, William C. McCool. "We have seen the same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry. That is all for now. It's a pleasure working with you every day."
Stich described the foam strike as "not even worth mentioning" but said he was worried that reporters might ask the astronauts about it during in-flight interviews the crew conducted regularly.
Husband, a veteran shuttle astronaut, replied two days later, on Jan. 25, "Thanks a million, Steve! And thanks for the great work on your part."
Husband replied separately to an e-mail Jan. 24 from another flight director, Jeffrey M. Hanley, who sent a video clip showing the foam striking near Columbia's left wing during liftoff. Husband wrote back early Jan. 27, "Thanks Jeff! And thanks for the super work! We appreciate it."
Investigators are increasingly convinced a chunk of foam from the external tank smashed against Columbia's left wing, loosening a protective panel along the leading edge. That could have permitted searing temperatures to penetrate the spacecraft during its fiery return Feb. 1, melting key structures aboard Columbia until it tumbled out of control at nearly 13,000 miles per hour. All seven astronauts died.
NASA has said previously that Columbia's crew was apprised within days of the foam investigation and a Jan. 27 conclusion that the shuttle would return safely. But the crew members -- and NASA's brass -- were not told about an intense debate among some midlevel engineers over concerns Columbia's left wing might burn off and cause the deaths of the crew. Some preliminary, internal documents shared among other engineers predicted as early as Jan. 21 that despite any damage Columbia "maintains safe return capability."
Previously disclosed notes from five high-level meetings during Columbia's mission showed that shuttle managers hardly mentioned the subject and largely dismissed it conclusively on Jan. 27 as "not a safety of flight concern." When they did consider the foam strike, during a Jan. 21 meeting, it was the final agenda item -- after discussions about minor water leaks and a broken camera on board.
NASA spokesman Kyle Herring said Stich's Jan. 23 e-mail assurance was not sent to Columbia's crew as a formal, operational dispatch and was based on ground assessments at the time. Herring said if NASA had concluded that Columbia's return would be risky, "then obviously more information would have been provided to the crew through channels other than a personal e-mail."
All Husband's messages carried the designation, "This is private/personal mail and not for release to media." NASA released printouts of the exchanges under the Freedom of Information Act and published them on its Web site.
The space agency also released pages of cartoons and humor material laced with inside-NASA jokes sent to Columbia's crew throughout the 16-day mission. One listed 10 phrases from astronauts who previously flew only to the International Space Station, including one gentle stab at the age of Columbia, NASA's oldest shuttle: "I didn't realize Columbia still flew!"
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