A Summary of the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident and the Role of Ballistic Impact Research in Supporting the Columbia Accident Investigation and NASA’s Return to Flight Effort




On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry resulting in loss of 7 crewmembers and craft.  For the next several months an extensive investigation of the accident ensued involving a nationwide team of experts from NASA, industry, and academia, spanning dozens of technical disciplines.   


The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), a group of experts assembled to conduct an investigation independent of NASA concluded in August, 2003 that the cause of the loss of Columbia and its crew was a breach in the left wing leading edge Reinforced Carbon-Carbon (RCC) thermal protection system initiated by the impact of thermal insulating foam that had separated from the orbiters external fuel tank 81 seconds into the missions launch.  During reentry, this breach allowed superheated air to penetrate behind the leading edge and erode the aluminum structure of left wing which ultimately led to the breakup of the orbiter.


Supporting the findings of the CAIB, were numerous ballistic impact test programs conducted to investigate and quantify the physics of External Tank foam impact on the RCC wing leading edge material. These tests ranged from fundamental material characterization tests to full-scale Orbiter Wing Leading Edge tests.


Following the accident investigation, NASA turned its focus to returning its remaining Orbiters safely to flight. Essential to the completion of this effort are numerous testing and analysis programs underway to evaluate the threat to Shuttle components from foam and ice debris impacts which may occur during ascent.


The presentation summarizes Columbia Accident and the nearly seven month long investigation that followed along with the current efforts to return NASA’s orbiter fleet safely to flight.  The extensive ballistic impact testing and analysis  ongoing at  NASA is highlighted presented in detail.



Matthew E. Melis

NASA Glenn Research Center

Cleveland, OH, 44138


Bio: Matthew Melis received both a BS in Civil Engineering and an MS in Engineering Mechanics from Michigan State University.  Mr. Melis has worked as an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center for twenty one years.  His primary area of focus is in advanced finite element modeling and analysis methods including nonlinear and dynamic impact loading.  His research is being used to predict ballistic impact response of jet engine fan containment concepts. Since the Columbia Accident, Matthew has been dedicated full time to the Columbia Accident Investigation and NASA’s return to flight efforts.