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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    $\begingroup$ The standard question - have you read CAIB report volumes for the chronology? $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Dec 16 '14 at 6:46
  • $\begingroup$ I believe they did have a way of verifying but a breakdown in communication prevented it from being implemented. Engineers concluded that Military/NRO observation satellites may have been able to photograph the orbiter with sufficient resolution and brought the plan to upper management. I believe they were actually told "Sorry, Boss isn't here right now" and dropped the idea. Source: some aircraft accident investigation book. $\endgroup$ – johnDanger May 13 at 16:55

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.

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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – 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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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Dec 17 '14 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ I turned on my wayback machine and remembered some more info, so I posted an answer. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Dec 17 '14 at 4:23

I've just come upon this question almost 5 years late, and over 16 years post disaster, but I remember the events at the time clearly enough to add to the answers.

I'm in New Zealand.
I recall pre re-entry

  • News discussions post launch re possible damage to the orbiter from foam from the ET.

  • News discussions of the possibility of aligning the orbiter to allow photos to be taken remotely - and this option reportedly being not taken.

  • I recall discussion - but it was probably not well informed or realistic of both EVAs and involvement of other systems.

So, the loss of the Shuttle on subsequent re-entry was as traumatic as you'd expect, but far from unexpected.

All memories at this sort of remove risk "recovered memory" effects - but I have good confidence that these above reflects what I heard at the time. I'm now 68 years old, and would have been 52 at the time of the disaster. My short term memory is known to suffer from "where did I put my cellphone" syndrome, but longer term memory is generally still quite reliable.

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  • $\begingroup$ spaceflightnow.com/shuttle/sts107/030630emails has email exchanges with crew. My own memory is that it was mentioned the next day (listening to Science Friday) and I had a sad feeling that their fate could be sealed, but forgot about it before the landing. $\endgroup$ – amI Aug 9 '19 at 18:58
  • $\begingroup$ @amI I recall the risk being discussed as a real one to the extent that we were waiting in anticipation. I THINK we listened live :-( - but that is not now certain. | For Apollo 13 I sat in our lounge on and off for about 3 days and listened to accounts - or MAYBE B&W TV. || Apollo 11 I took time off from an Engineering Physics lecture to listen live at home and audio record it. Those were the days :-). $\endgroup$ – Russell McMahon Aug 9 '19 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I remember the live TV coverage (with people waiting in FL), but I can't remember if it was just because it was the first flight since 9-11. $\endgroup$ – amI Aug 10 '19 at 5:23
  • $\begingroup$ @amI I specifically remember the reports of foam off the main tank striking the orbiter and discussions re attempts or means of inspection for damage. All pre-reentry. I'm quite sure of this despite the time elapsed. Strangely. $\endgroup$ – Russell McMahon Aug 10 '19 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ You may be right, but there was much second guessing afterwards, and foam shedding continued to happen (I remember listening to radio discussions outside, definitely not February in MN) -- I'm waiting for an answer with archived media coverage. $\endgroup$ – amI Aug 11 '19 at 5:27

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