Investigators say Boeing’s loss of key engineering talent in recent years played a role in the company’s flawed analysis during the Columbia mission that the crew would return safely.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board is likely to include such a judgment when it delivers its accident report later this month, though its formal findings and conclusions are still under review, according to four sources close to the board.
At issue is whether Boeing Co.'s relocation of its space shuttle engineering staff from Southern California to Texas in 2001 resulted in a brain drain. Boeing officials said they are not aware investigators have reached a judgment and disputed the contention that the move weakened the company’s engineering staff.
During the Columbia mission, Boeing engineers provided three critical reports that concluded foam debris that struck the shuttle shortly after launch had not catastrophically damaged its thermal protection system and that the seven-member crew would return safely. In fact, the investigation has found that foam debris almost certainly did breach the leading edge of the left wing, which led to the orbiter’s breakup over Texas on Feb. 1, killing the crew.
The reports influenced all the key decisions by NASA managers, who then downplayed the entire foam event, investigation board chairman Harold Gehman Jr. said in the spring. As a result, the board became keenly interested in how and why Boeing erred.
Boeing’s technical assessments for NASA were performed by its engineering staff in Houston, which until 2001 had been located in Huntington Beach.
About 80% of the 500 engineers in California refused to move, forcing Boeing to hire and train new workers in Texas. The Columbia flight was the first time Boeing’s staff in Texas had primary responsibility for providing NASA with engineering support, according to accident board investigators.
Engineers in Huntington Beach have told Columbia investigators that they would have reached different conclusions during the mission than their counterparts in Houston. Boeing space shuttle program manager Steve Oswald acknowledged in an interview that he had heard those allegations.
“For these guys back at Huntington Beach to say that they would have come up with a different conclusion bothers me,” Oswald said. “If they thought that, they should have come forward during the mission. To not do so is unconscionable.”
Columbia board investigators say the disaster had many causes and the Boeing relocation may be just one part of a complex set of forces that led to the tragedy.
“We might never know if they hadn’t moved whether they would have had the expertise to reach a different conclusion,” said one of the board sources, who asked to remain anonymous. “But the move did have an impact. When you lose expertise, you can’t replace it. It is a retention problem.”
Oswald said Boeing made extensive efforts to train engineers and capture all of the know-how that the Huntington Beach contingent had gathered over 20 years of supporting the shuttle. Although some key people were lost in the transition, the transfer resulted in a stronger team, he said. Moving the engineers closer to the shuttle office at Johnson Space Center has improved communications, he said.
During the Columbia mission, the Boeing engineers were part of a large task force that attempted to determine whether the foam falling off the external tank 82 seconds after launch caused any damage.
An analysis of launch photos indicated that the foam could have hit the wing’s leading edge, but it was considered far more likely to have hit the thermal protection tiles on the underside of the wing. So engineers spent more effort to assess possible damage to tiles.
The Columbia board has determined that the Boeing and NASA shuttle engineers lacked the proper analytical tools and tests to properly assess the foam strike. For example, Boeing engineers were forced to use data that analyzed the potential for ice to gouge the leading edge, which is made of reinforced carbon carbon.
The engineers thought ice would overestimate the potential for damage, but as investigators later found out, it underestimated the problem. Rather than gouging the leading edge, the foam broke a hole through the structure with blunt force.
On Jan. 23, engineers decided that the foam would not have damaged either the tiles or the leading edge. Boeing advised NASA that the leading edge panel would not be damaged even if hit by a 20-by-10-by-6-inch piece of foam traveling at 720 feet per second and striking at a 21-degree angle.
Columbia investigators have demonstrated that the analysis was wrong. In a test earlier this month, a gaping hole was blown into a replica of Columbia’s leading edge by a foam block fired out of a gas-powered gun. The test foam measured 19 inches by 11.5 inches by 5.5 inches and traveled at 777 feet per second.
“It was not intuitive to anybody that the reinforced carbon carbon was going to lose a battle with foam,” Oswald said. “The entire community in our wildest dreams couldn’t have imagined that foam could break the leading edge. We will have to live with it.”
The Huntington Beach engineers said they would have reached the same conclusion about the leading edge, but would have warned NASA that the foam could have catastrophically damaged the tile, Oswald noted. The result would have been a warning about the foam, but for the wrong reason.
One space shuttle engineer at Huntington Beach, who did not want his name used, said it is widely believed at the plant that the California work force is more experienced, particularly in the area of thermal damage analysis, and would not have made the same errors.
Another engineer said the Texas staff was well trained and equal to the California staff in some areas but not in all.