2003 Emerging Leaders

Paul Wilde

Designed the tests that revealed the likely cause of the Columbia disaster.

On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia’s seven-member flight crew wrapped up a 16-day marathon mission during which they had conducted more than 80 science experiments. A smooth reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere and a safe landing at NASA’s Cape Canaveral was expected that morning.

Fate would decide otherwise. At just before 9:00 a.m., flight commander Rick Husband acknowledged a call from Mission Control and was cutoff in mid-transmission, never to be heard from again. Shortly after, the shuttle broke up, killing all seven crew members and spreading debris across much of Texas and Louisiana.

Dr. Paul Wilde, a 38-year old aerospace engineer with just two years experience in the federal government, helped us learn why disaster struck. When the Columbia Accident Investigation Board announced that its investigators had proof that a piece of foam insulation hitting the orbiter’s left wing led to its destruction, Dr. Wilde’s mission to “follow the foam” had been accomplished. His team’s impact tests provided the “smoking gun” that explained the cause of the accident.

In the definitive test, a small piece of foam was fired by a nitrogen-powered gun into the wing panel from the shuttle Atlantis at about 530 miles per hour, blowing out a large 16 by 16 inch square hole. The impact was so violent that it broke an adjacent structural piece and popped a lens off one of the cameras recording the experiment. This test provided clear and convincing evidence that the direct technical cause of the disaster was a piece of foam from an external fuel tank that struck Columbia’s left wing 82 seconds after lift-off.

Dr. Wilde has been on loan to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) since February. During his two years at the FAA, he has worked in concert with the U.S. Air Force, NASA, the University of Michigan and several contractors to develop tools that can be used to predict how debris from commercial space launches (such as those that launch communications satellites) will break up when they re-enter the atmosphere, and how much of the launch vehicle will survive and strike the surface of the earth. In addition, Dr. Wilde provides leadership for a multi-agency team that is developing common standards for launch safety. Wilde’s work in this area will allow the FAA to evaluate launch license applications according to their threats to public safety.

Given the fears that another accident of this magnitude may hit a major population center, Wilde is now engaging in theoretical cutting-edge research to determine the damage and casualties that could result if debris from an accident like the Columbia tragedy hit a city.

Despite only two years of federal service, Wilde’s reputation earned him a critical role in the Columbia investigation. The impact of his work will help America—and humankind—once again reach for the stars.