Copyright 1986 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
February 7, 1986, Friday, Late City Final Edition
SECTION: Section A; Page 1, Column 6; National Desk
LENGTH: 1270 words


BYLINE: By PHILIP M. BOFFEY, Special to the New York Times


The space agency testified today that it held a telephone conversation with the manufacturer of the booster rockets for the space shuttle Challenger one day before launching because of concern that seals on the boosters might have been weakened by cold.

At the first meeting of a Presidential commission investigating the explosion of the space shuttle, agency officials also acknowledged that temperatures in the mid-20's caused a water pipe on the launching pad to break. Most water lines were kept open so the water would run and not freeze; a substantial amount of ice formed where the lines drained at one side of the launching pad, the officials said.

But the space officials insisted that a series of technical reviews the day before the flight and an ice inspection Jan. 28, the day of the flight, led to an agreement among space officials and manufacturers that neither the low temperatures nor the ice on the pad threatened the shuttle's safety.

Weather a Major Topic

Weather was one of the major topics of discussion as seven experts from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration testified about the explosion and destruction of the Challenger some 73 seconds after it lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center.

The commission is headed by William P. Rogers, former Secretary of State, and includes 13 members, 11 of whom were able to attend the hastily called session. The commission scheduled a closed hearing Friday but did not announce other plans for how it will proceed. A staff is to be appointed, but there has been no announcement of its size or of anyone who might serve on it. The commission is to have access to data compiled by a separate NASA inquiry.

In other testimony at the daylong session at the National Academy of Sciences, space officials said there is essentially no way astronauts can escape a shuttle launching in the first two minutes, until the solid-fuel booster rockets have completed burning. Their testimony appeared to be directed at the suggestion made by some NASA critics that a better system of sensors might have alerted the astronauts and enabled them to detach their shuttle from its rockets and fuel tanks before the explosion.

Role Played by Cold

Prodded by a number of specific questions from commission members, the witnesses spent considerable time describing the cold weather conditions that some observers and industry spokesman have speculated could have played a role in the disaster, possibly by causing changes in the solid fuel or stresses in various components of the shuttle system.

Both Jesse W. Moore, associate administrator for space flight, the agency's top shuttle administrator, and Arnold D. Aldrich, manager of shuttle integration at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, testified that cold and ice were considered at various technical and management meetings but not deemed a hazard to the mission.

Mr. Moore cited only two weather concerns that came to his attention. One was whether the water lines at the pad, used by workers in servicing the shuttle, would freeze, slowing preparations and cutting water to sites where it is used as an eye rinse if toxic fumes leak. ''That was the major concern the system had at that time,'' he said.

Bullet - Cold discounted as launch impediment

Another concern was ice on the launching pad, he said, but that was largely discounted as a problem at a meeting Jan. 27, when it was decided to proceed with the launching. Other than that, Mr. Moore said, ''I did not hear any concerns about the temperature expressed.''

Mr. Aldrich, who led a major technical meeting on ice and weather the day before the launching, testified that temperatures in the mid-20s were thought to be ''well within'' the design capabilities of the shuttle system. ''We had no concerns expressed on the temperatures,'' he said.

Mr. Rogers asked if Morton Thiokol Inc., the company that built the booster rockets, which are the prime suspect in the explosion, had warned about the effect of low temperatures on the rockets, and Mr. Aldrich replied: ''I do not recall such a warning.''

Phone Call With Builder

But Judson A. Lovingood, deputy manager of shuttle projects at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., testified later that there was a telephone discussion about the cold weather between Morton Thiokol personnel in Utah and space officials in Alabama and Florida. He said the discussion focused on whether low temperatures would cause leaks in two synthetic rubber seals that are meant to prevent hot gases from escaping through the joints where segments of the booster rockets are joined together.

In the end, he said, Morton Thiokol recommended proceeding with the launching.

Mr. Lovingood said the temperature of the solid fuel itself is supposed to be between 40 and 90 degrees. At launching time, he said, the ''mean bulk temperature'' of the fuel was calculated to be about 55 degrees. He said that there were no sensors to measure the fuel's temperature, but that the temperature was calculated by formulas starting with the air temperature.

"Quite a Lot of Ice"

Mr. Aldrich also testified that an inspection the morning of the flight found ''quite a lot of ice'' on the north side of the pad and some on the south side. The only concern of the technical experts, he said, was whether this ice might shake loose during liftoff and damage the soft thermal protection tiles that protect the shuttle orbiter from burning up when it descends through the atmosphere. After calculating how the ice might fall, he said, ''we did not see it as a credible threat to the vehicle.''

Mr. Aldrich said there was frost, but no real ice, on the space vehicle itself. He called the icing conditions ''relatively normal'' and ''quite within bounds'' for shuttle operations.

Under questioning by the commission, Mr. Aldrich said there was probably no complete record of the discussions at the critical preflight meetings at which decisions were made to delay and proceed with various scheduled launching times. ''To my knowledge there is not a written record or recording of those meetings,'' he said. But he added that responsible officials sign formal documents saying that critical issues have been checked and approved before launching.

Escape Routes Discussed

Under prodding from the commission, Mr. Aldrich spent considerable time describing how astronauts can detach the orbiter capsule from the rest of the shuttle structure and return to earth. He said none of the planned procedures are designed to allow escape while the booster rockets are still burning in the first two minutes and eight or nine seconds of flight. Ordinarily, the boosters burn themselves out and detach automatically, leaving the shuttle to continue rising on its own main engines with fuel carried in the huge external fuel tank. When that tank is drained, it, too, detaches and the orbiter is on its own.

Mr. Aldrich said all the planned abort procedures are designed to cope with a failure of one of the main engines, not a failure of the booster rockets. Under various circumstances, the astronauts can detach their orbiter from the fuel tank and fly toward landing sites at Cape Canaveral, across the Atlantic, or around the world, or they can fly up into orbit and later prepare to come back, he said.

But any effort to abort while the solid-fuel booster rockets are still firing was deemed ''unacceptable'' by planners, Mr. Aldrich said, because of dangers involved in the dynamics of flight at that point, the atmospheric effects and the necessity to rupture fuel lines that would spill fuel on the shuttle.

GRAPHIC: photo of visitors at Space Center (NYT/William E. Sauro) (page A19);  photo of Arnold Aldrich and members of panel (NYT/Jim Wilson)