Advanced Engineering 2019

Photo May Show Missing Shuttle Tiles

11 March 2003

A grainy US Air Force photograph that NASA originally dismissed as being too fuzzy may in fact show the deadly effects of missing tiles on the space shuttle Columbia.

The picture taken in the last seconds of Columbia's existence shows what may be a vortex of superheated air roiling over the left wing and a section of heat-shield panels missing from the leading edge. One theory has been that debris from the shuttle's external fuel tank knocked off some of the spacecraft's heat-shielding tiles about 80 seconds after launch, allowing superheated gas to get in during re-entry. The photograph may support this theory.

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