NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Did "Environmentally Friendly" Materials Cause Shuttle Disaster?

August 27, 2003

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said recently that it had discovered what caused the space shuttle Columbia to break apart as it re-entered the atmosphere: a piece of "environmentally friendly" foam had peeled off the external fuel tank and struck the shuttle's wing shortly after liftoff.

In its zeal to use "environmentally correct" materials, NASA had stopped using Freon-based foam because of the damage supposedly done by Freon to the ozone layer, claims John Berlau (Insight on the News), even though the agency had observed for years that bigger pieces of this new foam were likely to fall off.

Experts say this isn't the first time that substituting "politically correct" materials for older, more reliable ones has brought about disastrous results:

  • After the 1986 Challenger explosion, a scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey found that a new asbestos-free putty had allowed hot gases to burn through a joint in one of the solid rocket boosters.
  • In 1997, after the first space shuttle launch using Freon-free insulating foam, NASA scientists found that nearly 11 times as many of the shuttle's ceramic tiles were destroyed, compared to flights with the foam containing Freon.

Since the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and various environmentalist groups and politicians have pressured NASA to use "environmentally friendly products," even though old materials had proven effective with little or no harm to humans. Since then, most of the space shuttle fleet had already been designed with the new, environmentally-safe foam, says Berlau.

Source: John Berlau, "Lost in Space," Insight Magazine, August 4, 2003. 


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