Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Media invade as students analyze Columbia shuttle debris

From CNN Headline News to the Washington Post, Lehigh engineering has enjoyed a flood of positive publicity recently thanks to the efforts of Prof. Arnold Marder and the seniors in his failure-analysis class.

CNN, the Post and the Los Angeles Times are just a few of the media outlets that have reported on the class’s investigation of debris from the Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003.

Mat 338: Failure Analysis Reports, required of all materials science and engineering seniors, gives students an opportunity to spend an entire semester examining real-life products that have failed.

Marder, the R.D. Stout Distinguished Professor of materials science and engineering and course instructor, served as a consultant to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center last year during a sabbatical. He petitioned NASA to allow Lehigh students to examine some of the 80,000 pieces of debris recovered after the Columbia exploded over the southern U.S. in February 2003.

Seven astronauts died in the accident, which investigators say was caused when chunks of foam insulation spalled, or broke away, from the shuttle’s fuel tank during launch, striking and damaging the reinforced-carbon carbon wing panel and exposing it to excessive heat when the Columbia re-entered the atmosphere.

NASA chose Lehigh to be the first university in the U.S. to study previously unanalyzed pieces of debris. A shipment containing 50 pieces of debris arrived in January and students began their forensic investigations on Feb. 17.

Marder said Lehigh was selected in part because its materials science and engineering department is one of the few in the U.S. to offer a course in failure analysis and because of its superior microscopy labs.

Marder said the students’ work will shed light on the behavior of materials under conditions of hypersonic reentry and may also help scientists determine why insulation spalling has occurred in 80 percent of NASA’s shuttle flights.

As of March 3, stories on the failure-analysis class had appeared in more than 100 print and broadcast outlets, some as far away as India.

The class has hosted reporters, photographers and TV crews from the Associated Press of Allentown, Channel 69 (Allentown), Channel 3 (Philadelphia) and the Morning Call (Allentown).

And Marder himself has fielded phone calls and interview requests from a dozen more media.

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Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005

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