Aerospace Develops Monte Carlo Tool for Predicting Damage to Shuttle from Foam Debris

Corporate Staff
posted November 30, 2012


The space shuttle Columbia accident occurred in part because the foam fell off the tank about 82 seconds after liftoff, when the air was much thicker and slowed the foam so that the climbing orbiter struck it with great force. The Columbia and its crew were lost because a 1.67-pound piece of insulating foam that had fallen off the external tank during liftoff crashed through the leading edge of the shuttle’s left wing. The resulting hole admitted superheated gases during the shuttle’s fiery re-entry into the atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003. After the Columbia accident, the investigators who implicated the falling foam as the physical cause demanded that NASA find ways to sharply limit the amount of foam that falls off the external tank. In response, NASA extensively tested foam and the way it is applied, and modified the tank so that it would be less likely to shed debris.

Value Added

Matthew Eby, a senior member of the technical staff in the Mechanical Systems Department, was awarded NASA’s Silver Snoopy award on Dec. 19, 2008. Eby developed and integrated the impact and transportation analysis for the Monte Carlo Debris Tool. When coupled with debris release and damage analyses, this can predict the likelihood of damage to the shuttle from foam debris, depending on various conditions. Eby later integrated all the analyses into a single, end-to-end computer program. Using the Monte Carlo Debris Tool to characterize the risk that debris posed to the shuttle, NASA was able to make informed decisions on how to tackle the foam debris problem and reduce risk from debris. Eby received the award from astronauts Ellen Baker and Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger in a ceremony at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston.  The Silver Snoopy was created as a way to raise awareness among NASA employees and contractors about the impact they have on flight safety and the safety of flight crews. Since its inception in 1968, more than 11,000 people have been honored with the Silver Snoopy. Five Aerospace employees have received the award.