How Data Survived The Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

Tuesday, 24 June 2014 by Jennifer Duits

Jon Edwards has seen his share of disasters. As a senior engineer at Ontrack he’s recovered data from devices that have been through the worst of times. Floods, fires, car wrecks- he thought he’d seen it all. But nothing could prepare him for the space shuttle Columbia data recovery, what was to become his most famous and challenging task- salvaging data from a melted disk drive which had fallen from the sky six months prior to its discovery.

This extraordinary finding was the remains of the ill-fated mission of the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated in 2003 after it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere after two weeks in space. A piece of insulating foam broke off from an external tank during the launch, and smacked  the left wing- destabilizing the shuttle and breaking it apart over Texas and Louisiana.

When Edwards was given the hard disk he was skeptical.  It was mangled and scorched and resembled a couple of metal chunks stuck together.  The seal that keeps out dust and dirt had also melted. This made the drive susceptible to particles that could scratch the small materials inside the disk and destroy any chance of retaining data.

The salvage attempt didn’t look promising, but there was a lucky break. The spinning metal platters that actually store data were not destroyed. They had been gashed and pitted, but the 240-megabyte drive was only half full and there was no damage on the side where the data was written.  Why was the data on just one side of the disk? Because the NASA computer was running an ancient operative system, DOS, which does not scatter data all over drives as others do.

The disk platters were cleaned and then used in a newly built drive. The process took a couple of days but the salvage attempt was successful in recovering 99 percent of the data.

This memorable recovery allowed NASA researchers to establish why ketchup and canned whipped cream have a liquid appearance when they’re dispensed and become more firm afterward. The process, called shear thinning, occurs when part of the substance – like whip cream foam thins and flows easily as it slides or shears past the rest of the foam.

The crew members that perished in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster had conducted experiments to analyze theories on shear-thinning. Some of the information from their experiments was on the hard disk that Ontrack recovered data from.

The findings, made possible by Ontrack’s recovery, were published in the 2008 April issue of Physical Review E, a physics journal.

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