When I reflect upon the unfortunate circumstance of STS-107 in 2003, I seem to have memories of hearing reports of the foam striking the underside of the vehicle before we even learned of the reentry mishap. Sometimes we have false memories though, so I was trying to find old news reports of the mission from the timespan between launch on Jan 16 and the disaster on Feb 1 a couple weeks later.

I did find this article on an ABC news site that claims Wayne Hale had posted this on a blog some years later:

"After one of the MMTs (Mission Management Team) when possible damage to the orbiter was discussed, he (Flight Director Jon Harpold) gave me his opinion: 'You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS (Thermal Protection System). If it has been damaged it's probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don't you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?"

I believe that statement confirms that NASA officials at least suspected a potential damage issue, which they had no way of verifying.

My question is: were there any reports to the public in the week or two after launch that the space shuttle had been struck by debris on its launch and that damage to the tiles was suspected?

I was not able to find anything via web searches, but then I cannot find many old newspaper stories or television broadcasts at all.

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    The standard question - have you read CAIB report volumes for the chronology? – Deer Hunter Dec 16 '14 at 6:46
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Yes, this information was publicly available. In fact, the only reason that the STS-107 crew was informed of the debris strike during the mission was that NASA management was concerned that the press might ask them about it during an on-orbit press conference.

From the "Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report", Volume 1, page 158:

Mission Control personnel thought they should tell Commander Rick Husband and Pilot William McCool about the debris strike, not because they thought that it was worthy of the crewʼs attention but because the crew might be asked about it in an upcoming media interview.

The CAIB report is available online here.

  • Aha! Having read years before that losing a single tile could cause the vehicle to burn up on re-entry I remember being only half surprised when I learned of the disaster and was more surprised by the fact that NASA didn't have an alternative plan. But I don't remember specifically what I'd heard about the damage or from where, so I've recently been doubting my memories. Thanks for verifying. – Octopus Dec 17 '14 at 5:25

I'm not sure about reports to the public, but NASA knew about the debris strike. According to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report, page 34:

Post-launch photographic analysis showed that one large piece and at least two smaller pieces of insulating foam separated from the External Tank left bipod (–Y) ramp area at 81.7 seconds after launch. . . . Further photographic analysis conducted the day after launch revealed that the large foam piece was approximately 21 to 27 inches long and 12 to 18 inches wide, tumbling at a minimum of 18 times per second, and moving at a relative velocity to the Shuttle Stack of 625 to 840 feet per second (416 to 573 miles per hour) at the time of impact.

This is elaborated on pages 37-38:

After discovering the strike, the Intercenter Photo Working Group prepared a report with a video clip of the impact and sent it to the Mission Management Team, the Mission Evaluation Room, and engineers at United Space Alliance and Boeing. In accordance with NASA guidelines, these contractor and NASA engineers began an assessment of potential impact damage to Columbiaʼs left wing, and soon formed a Debris Assessment Team to conduct a formal review.

The Debris Assessment Team requested photographic imagery of the strike area, but was turned down. The matter was apparently discussed internally:

Even after the Debris Assessment Teamʼs conclusion had been reported to the Mission Management Team, engineers throughout NASA and Mission Control continued to exchange e-mails and discuss possible damage. These messages and discussions were generally sent only to people within the sendersʼ area of expertise and level of seniority.

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    The video clip of the debris strike was widely circulated at JSC during the mission (I worked there at the time); I do not recall any admonitions against sharing the information with the public. I imagine that it was available to the people outside the JSC community but that there was just not much interest. – Organic Marble Dec 17 '14 at 1:48
  • I turned on my wayback machine and remembered some more info, so I posted an answer. – Organic Marble Dec 17 '14 at 4:23

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