Damien grad
aids effort to fix
shuttle tank foam

A Damien Memorial School and University of Hawaii alumnus is helping NASA determine what caused a large chunk of insulating foam to break off the external tank of the space shuttle Discovery.


Chris Davis: The NASA senior project manager is an alumnus of UH-Manoa

"We will be looking into the problem proactively to see what we can do to get an understanding of the problem," said Chris Davis, senior project manager for spaceport engineering and technology at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"There's large amounts of debris that we really haven't experienced much of. It's surprising and alarming," Davis said.

Davis helped complete two high-priority projects involving foam debris following the Columbia tragedy where seven people were killed. A suitcase-size chunk of insulating foam from the shuttle's external tank struck the left wing on liftoff.

Program officials recently announced that they will be suspending further shuttle flights until they determine what caused a large chunk of foam to break off the Discovery's external tank Tuesday morning, the same problem that had occurred with Columbia.

Davis said he supports the decision to ground further flights until the problem is fixed. "It's the right thing to do as far as I'm concerned," he said.

"When they have a crisis like this, they turn every stone they can. This is a problem that has gone on through the life of the program. It is probably going to take a re-doubling effort to get our hands around it. I have no doubt that NASA can solve it," Davis said.

In February, Davis received the Space Flight Awareness Award for his contributions in two projects. The award is the highest honor by the Space Shuttle Program.

One project involved the orbiters' thermal protection system and the other involved inspection of foam on the external fuel tanks.

In the first project, they tested how much debris the shuttle's tiles can withstand.

"The amount of debris that can cause damage is roughly a 3-inch diameter by 1-inch thick piece of foam which will fit in your hand nicely," he said.

In the second project, Davis and his team developed a technique called "shearography" to ensure that foam will not come off the tank during launch and ascent. Shearography uses a laser to detect defects.

The technique has yet to be implemented by program administrators.

"It's not in use at this time," Davis said. "That's a program decision. They have to decide when they want to use it."

The former Hawaii resident said that he is just one of many people inside and outside the shuttle program who are continuing their work on improving the detection of foam defects that can cause debris.

Davis said a separate team had assessed the debris through photographs.

There were many pieces larger than 3 inches diameter that broke off the Discovery, he said. There appears to be no damage to the shuttle.

Davis said working with the people at the Kennedy Space Center is similar to living in Hawaii: "There's a lot of dedicated people. I feel privileged. And we share that interest that I think reminds me of Hawaii. At NASA, our agency tried to emphasize a NASA family.

"That really fits well with the culture. I feel I belong to a group of people that take a lot of pride in our accomplishments and ourselves," he added. "I think that that's something Hawaii has ... pride in our people."

Davis, 49, graduated from Damien Memorial High School in 1973 and obtained a bachelor's degree at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in mechanical engineering in 1983. During his days at the university, Davis said he started to look into working at the Kennedy Space Center.

"That has been a long-time interest of mine, a long-time desire," he said.

He received a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Central Florida in Orlando in 1993. Before joining the space center in 1990, Davis worked on a P-3 anti-submarine plane in California. He said he has been involved in about 80 of the 114 shuttle flights.

Davis, an avid traveler, said he plans on eventually returning to Hawaii. "There's a lot of warmth and positive feelings I have for Hawaii," said Davis who has a brother, Marc Davis, and an aunt, Stella Duc, who reside on Oahu.

The New York Times contributed to this report.

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