While NASA struggles to determine what caused the Feb. 1 demise of the Columbia space shuttle, some makers of materials used on the craft said they are willing to help with the investigation.
``We stand ready to assist in any way possible,'' said Sam Eberts, vice president and general counsel of Stepan Co., which has supplied chemicals used in foam insulation on the external rocket since the inception of the shuttle.
Eberts said his Northfield, Ill.-based firm had not heard from NASA as of Feb. 5.
North Carolina Foam Industries blended the chemicals for the foam used on the shuttle and shipped that blend to Lockheed Martin Corp., which applied it.
``We're totally shocked,'' said Steve Riddle, vice president of sales for NCFI. ``We're still in shock. Our concern now is with the families as much as anything.''
The company blends chemicals in a 280,000-square-foot plant in Mount Airy, N.C., which employs about 180. NASA accounts for less than 5 percent of NCFI's total business, Riddle said. NCFI is one of six companies that supply chemicals to create the PU foam insulation.
NCFI, which has dealt with the space program since 1983, also had not heard from NASA, according to Riddle.
``We've always been proud and we still are proud to work for NASA,'' he said. ``We want that to continue and we're looking forward to better days.''
Seven astronauts were killed when the shuttle disintegrated or exploded over Texas. NASA initially thought a 21/2-pound, 20-inch section of foam could be to blame, but now is looking more closely at the shuttle's automatic control system, which struggled to hold Columbia's speed stable as it re-entered the atmosphere. Space officials also are looking at debris from as far west as California for potential clues.
NASA and Lockheed Martin officials could not be reached for comment.
Others in the widely varied PU foam market are watching news reports closely.
Jim Anderson, vice president-technical for Foam Enterprises Inc. in Minneapolis, which does spraying of PU foam, said people have called him for his take on what happened. He has been telling them it is too early to judge the various theories.
``This is all strictly conjecture until they get their noses to it,'' He said.
BASF Corp. spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick would not discuss possible reasons for the crash. BASF owns Hess Polyurethane, which did some of the foam work for the shuttle. Lockheed Martin has asked the company to confirm that its material met specifications.
``I feel really uncomfortable second-guessing,'' Fitzpatrick said. ``These fellas have a job to do.''
Others have their own ideas.
During the quarter-century Ron Nuhfer has worked with polyurethane foam on rooftops, he has noticed it has an unusual characteristic: It attracts birds. Nuhfer, owner of foam-contractor Northern Foam Systems Inc. in Warren, Pa., said birds mistake the foam for straw and when they peck at it, they create imperfections where water can seep in, he said.
If the phenomenon happened to the shuttle's fuel tanks during the 39 days it rested on the launch pad, Nuhfer said, the result could be catastrophic. If water somehow found its way into the cracks created by the birds, the water could have frozen, creating a mass deadly enough to doom the mission.
``I'm almost willing to bet a large amount of money it was a chunk of ice,'' that damaged the wing, Nuhfer said by telephone from his home in Odessa, Fla., where he can see the shuttles take off for orbit.
Ron Whipple, marketing director at SWD Urethane Co. in Mesa, Ariz., said he has seen woodpeckers pecking at the foam on rooftops, but does not think that had anything to do with the disaster. He also said it was odd the insulation was pried loose from the shuttle.
``It'd take a really good bump to take it off,'' he said. ``We've seen tornadoes that took off the substrate of houses, but not the foam.''