A seven-man panel investigating Monday's failure of two spacesuits aboard the space shuttle Columbia expects to have some answers within a week.
"We hope to . . . understand what went wrong before Thanksgiving," Richard A. Colonna, manager of the Shuttle Program Operations Office and chairman of the Spacesuit Anomaly Review Team, said at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We want to be able to make recommendations as soon as possible to shuttle program manager Glynn Lunney."
The two spacesuits that would have been worn by astronauts William Lenoir and Joseph Allen on the first American space walk in almost nine years are still in the Columbia in a hangar here at Edwards, where they were to be tested to see if the failures that took place on Monday recur.
The suits were to be powered up twice, once on spacecraft electric power and once on internal battery power, to see if the fan that was supposed to feed oxygen to Allen's suit breaks down and if the device to regulate oxygen pressure inside Lenoir's suit fails to reach full pressure.
Next, the suits are to be flown to the Johnson Space Center and examined by technicians. The panel of six JSC engineers and one engineer from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will meet Thursday to review the history, design and testing of the two $1 million spacesuits.
What baffles shuttle engineers is that both suits failed at the same time, although for different reasons.
"It is certainly an engineering rarity to have two suits tested and stowed, and then see them fail precisely at the same time," Colonna said.
He said the suits were last tested 10 to 12 days before Columbia was launched on Nov. 11, and were stowed aboard the spaceliner right after the last tests, which he described as routine and successful.
The investigative team will not ignore the possibility that the suits were dropped in their footlocker-like cases or bumped when they were removed from there and stowed. "We will certainly look at all the historical data on the suits prior to stowage," Colonna said.
Meanwhile, inspectors reported today that Columbia came through its fifth flight in better shape than any of its previous four.
Only four of the 33,000 protective tiles that cover the fuselage, tail and wings were damaged or came loose during the heat of re-entry into the atmosphere Tuesday: a chipped tile on the nose cap, a torn tile midway on the left side, and two tiles missing on the left-side engine pod at the rear of the spaceliner.
The main inboard tire on the left side of the fuselage was shredded and flattened on landing, largely because that brake jammed against the tire when Columbia touched down on runway 22.