The investigation into the Columbia shuttle disaster in February has thrown up a startling detail. Inaccurate computer data misled flight engineers into thinking that the shuttle could return safely to Earth, reveals the probe team.
Scientists had concluded during the flight that a minor incident during lift-off -- when a chunk of insulating foam detached from the fuel tank -- would not cause any danger on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. But they had used a previously unutilised model to reach their conclusions, stated former astronaut Sally Ride, who is one of the investigators.
The enquiry has been concentrating on the damage caused to the shuttle's left wing by the foam. Ride suggested that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (nasa) may not have paid enough attention to the accident, as debris strikes occur routinely on almost all space flights. "You survived it the first time, so suddenly it becomes more normal," she said.
Some engineering experts think that a rupture in the left wing permitted hot gas to circulate around the wheel well when the shuttle heated up on descent. The split probably worsened steadily leading to a structural collapse, they speculate.
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