Failure analysis of the space shuttle Columbia RCC leading edge


Failure analysis of the Columbia shuttle left T-seal 9 and an unidentified fragment of leading edge reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) composite material was carried out to determine the causes of failure. Standard metallographic and microscopy procedures were employed to identify and characterize the failure mode. The results indicate that erosion and cracking occurred. Erosion was caused by the extreme temperatures and stress conditions experienced during the shuttle breakup in the upper atmosphere. Porosity, glassy phase, pinholes, and cracking in the silicon carbide (SiC) layer of the RCC material accelerated erosion and mass loss. Brittle cracking was also found in the SiC layer, and crack propagation was apparently enhanced by the flaws in the microstructure.

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Bykowski, M., Hudgins, A., Deacon, R.M. et al. Failure analysis of the space shuttle Columbia RCC leading edge. J Fail. Anal. and Preven. 6, 39–45 (2006).

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  • cracking
  • erosion
  • porosity
  • reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC)
  • silicon carbide
  • T-seal