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Hundreds of tests were performed in the Ballistics Lab at Glenn to determine the threshold of damage for reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) panels used on the Shuttle.

High speed foam strike Technician Duane Revlock adjusts high speed camera aimed at the inside of a Shuttle wing leading edge RCC panel
Ballistics Team Helps Return Shuttle to Flight: In Feb. 2003, shortly after Columbia broke apart while re-entering Earth's atmosphere, the NASA Glenn Ballistic Impact Team was asked to apply their expertise in impact phenomena to help identify the cause of the accident. Launch videos showed that a piece of insulating foam the size of a briefcase had fallen off the External Tank and struck the leading edge of the Columbia’s left wing. Accident investigators suspected that the foam had damaged the Reinforced Carbon-Carbon (RCC) thermal protection system on the Orbiters wing leading edge allowing the penetration of hot re-entry gases, which led to the loss of Columbia and its crew.
[View Foam Strike Video]

The Glenn Impact Team was asked to do two things; 1.) Develop a computer model in order to accurately predict real and potential impact damage from expected debris, such as insulating foams and ice, to the reinforced carbon-carbon, and 2.) Perform impact testing to characterize the impact behavior both the debris materials as well as the RCC, and assist with the full-scale testing being conducted by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The predominant focus of the effort was on the External Tank insulating foam and ice, which might form on the tank prior to liftoff, as debris sources.

Hundreds of tests were preformed shooting ice and foam at reinforced carbon-carbon panels to identify its threshold of damage for any given debris type and at the same time, validate the computer models under development. In addition, all of the debris materials were shot at load cells in order to accurately measure the impact forces for any give velocity and angle.
[View Lab Testing Video]

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board completed its work with a series of full-scale orbiter wing leading edge impact tests designed to recreate the actual impact event at Southwest Research Institute near San Antonio, Texas. Shooting a 1.7 – pound piece of foam at nearly 550 miles per hour in the final test of this series, resulted in a large hole, the size of a large pizza box on the reinforced carbon-carbon leading edge panel. It was this test that enabled the Board to conclude that the most likely cause of the Columbia accident was a breach in the orbiters wing leading edge thermal protection system due to the foam impacting its leading edge.
[View Full Scale Test Video]

Following the close of the accident investigation, the Glenn Impact team spent nearly four years completing its work in the development of the computer analysis models, which are now used to understand and predict the threats to the Space Shuttle from impacts with expected debris seen during a launch. This technical advancement has made operation safer for NASA’s Shuttle fleet and will continue to benefit future spaceflight programs.
[View High Speed Foam Impact Video]

Technicians prepare a ballistics impact gun for testing
Above: Technicians prepare a ballistics impact gun for testing
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Last Updated: January 15, 2016