CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Columbia accident investigators criticized NASA (search) on Tuesday for botched photography during the ill-fated launch and urged the space agency to do a better job of filming shuttle liftoffs to detect potentially catastrophic problems.
A pair of long-range cameras provided images that were usable for evaluating the blow to Space Shuttle Columbia's (search) left wing from a piece of foam, but a third camera that would have provided a better view did not work properly, and the urgently needed pictures it provided were fuzzy.
Sharp pictures of the 1-pound chunk of foam insulation smashing into the wing's leading edge at more than 500 mph might have led NASA to take the mishap more seriously.
The evaluation "was hampered by lack of high-resolution, high-speed cameras," the investigators said in a statement.
Columbia broke apart over Texas during re-entry on Feb. 1 after hot gases penetrated a gap in the leading edge and melted the wing. All seven astronauts were killed.
In its fourth preliminary finding released in advance of its final report, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (search) said the long-range tracking cameras at Kennedy Space Center (search) and the nearby Air Force station are inadequate. The panel suggested that consideration be given to using ships and planes to provide additional views.
"The space shuttle is still a developmental vehicle, and engineering data from each launch is essential to further understand the vehicle," the board said.
The board said the camera stations have not been upgraded to reflect changes in launch patterns associated with trips to the international space station, which now account for the vast majority of missions.
NASA should upgrade the system to provide at least three useful views of the shuttle from liftoff to the separation of the booster rockets two minutes into flight, along any expected trajectory, the investigators said.
Last Friday, the board recommended that NASA find a way for astronauts to inspect their ships for damage and make emergency repairs in orbit. In April, the investigators suggested that NASA improve its preflight inspection of wing panels and obtain spy-satellite images of the shuttle during every flight to check for damage.
The board expects to release its final report by the end of the month.