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Are Environmental Regulations to Blame for the Shuttle Catastrophe?

The Space Shuttle Columbia accident report is out, and is quite lengthy. Instapundit points out that buried in Chapter 3 of the report is a reference to the fact that the foam (which apparently struck the shuttle and caused burn through on re-entry) was reformulated for environmental reasons. Brian Carnell’s blog reprinted a NASA press release from 1999 which states that the foam was known to flake off the inter-tank section of the external fuel tank on a previous shuttle mission. It also confirmed that the "new lightweight insulation material was developed to comploy with an EPA mandate to reduce ozone-depleting chemicals released into the atmosphere."

If it is true that NASA used what it knew to be an inferior product in order to comply with EPA regulations, then it is scandalous. I’m no expert in this area, and will leave it to folks like Hayward to fill in the gaps, but I am interested to see if anything comes of this.

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A number of people have made this point, and now the report offers some backup. I think we should be very cautious about laying the blame with the EPA, however. My understanding, based on communicating with my "mole" inside EPA’s career ranks, is that NASA would have been granted an exemption from the CFC rules for its insulation if it had wanted one. So in the end it was probably more NASA’s decision that it could comply with this ill-advised rule than an EPA mandate that is to blame. Whether other forces of EC ("environmental correctness") were brought to bear on NASA is impossible to tell, but that would have occurred most likely under the Reagan and Bush I administrations, when the CFC ban went into effect. In other words, I don’t think we can blame this on the Clinton folks either.

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