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Stanford Report, April 2, 2003

Electrical engineering professor helps to piece together Columbia accident

Gregory Kovacs, designated probe's 'investigation scientist,' cites 'suggestive trends' toward a probable cause of disaster


Gregory T.A. Kovacs, associate professor of electrical engineering, was among seven experts called to answer questions from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) March 25 and 26 at the investigation's third public hearing, which covered topics including space shuttle safety, forensic metallurgy and debris collection, layout and analysis.

"While it is too early to draw conclusions, there are certainly lots of very suggestive trends, and we are confident that we have a very good chance at determining a solid 'probable cause' scenario," Kovacs said in an e-mail interview from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he is coordinating debris and sensor analyses for the CAIB. Within weeks of the Feb. 1 accident that claimed the lives of all seven Columbia astronauts, Kovacs was added to the team supporting the CAIB, of which physics Professor Douglas Osheroff is a member.

"I was designated the 'investigation scientist' for the part of the CAIB that is looking at debris, data, imagery, etc., [having] to do with the mishap," Kovacs explained. This task entails analyzing the recovered debris, locating topical experts, recommending and interpreting chemical and other materials analyses, developing loss scenarios and briefing the CAIB, which will use the information to produce probable-cause theories.

"Overall, we are looking at the debris to try to understand the conditions each piece was exposed to, where on the ground it fell (implying something about when it was shed from the vehicle), and -- by looking at multiple pieces together -- trying to pin down the causative events and their locations," Kovacs said. "So far, many new pieces have been added to the reconstruction grid, and more are being found daily." About 40 percent of the search area in Texas and Louisiana has been covered, he added.

Figuring out what happened to Columbia will be no easy feat, even with herculean help from the National Transportation Safety Board and NASA. "Frankly, this is the first time in human history that we have had to investigate a hypervelocity, reentry disaster, so there are no preexisting experts out there to jump in," Kovacs said. "I think good scientific and engineering methods will lead to answers, and that is what brings the team together."

Not a day goes by without Kovacs and his fellow investigators "feeling great sympathy for the families of the Columbia crew and the entire NASA family," Kovacs said. "We want to make sure this never happens again."

Kovacs earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of British Columbia in 1984, a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of California-Berkeley, in 1985 and doctoral (electrical engineering) and doctor of medicine degrees from Stanford in 1990 and 1992, respectively. He obtained a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, held the Noyce Family Chair and received Terman and University Fellowships at Stanford.

His research areas include biomedical instruments and sensors, miniaturized spacecraft hardware and biotechnology. A fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, Kovacs is director of medical device technologies for the Stanford-NASA National Biocomputation Center, former chair of the Defense Sciences Research Council of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and co-founder of several companies, most recently Cepheid in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Besides bringing to the investigation his strong general knowledge of engineering systems and instrumentation, Kovacs also brings aviation experience garnered as a private pilot.

While Osheroff and Kovacs are involved in the investigation on an ongoing basis, other Stanford faculty also have briefed the CAIB. In February, NASA called Elisabeth Paté-Cornell, the Burton J. and DeeDee McMurtry Professor in the School of Engineering, to Johnson Space Center in Houston to speak about risk analysis of shuttle tiles (see Stanford Report, March 12, 2003). Electrical engineering Professor Umran Inan also went to Houston to testify about upper atmospheric electrical effects.

"During re-entry the shuttle passes through the mesospheric altitudes of 60 to 90 kilometers, in which sprites and other lightning-driven effects occur," Inan said. "There were some concerns that electrical phenomena at these altitudes may have contributed to the demise of the mission. Our small sub-panel is now putting together a report, but our primary conclusion is that such electrical effects are not likely to have been a factor."

Gregory Kovacs, associate professor of electrical engineering, is helping to analyze debris from the space shuttle Columbia. Pieces of the spacecraft are being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: Gregory Kovacs