University of Missouri-Rolla researcher Dr. Reza Zoughi, director of the school's Applied Microwave Nondestructive Testing Lab, is using near-field microwave nondestructive evaluation (NDE) to study foam samples similar to the insulation used on NASA's space shuttles. A piece of such insulation appeared to break off the shuttle's main fuel tank, hitting Columbia's heat-protecting tiles. Experts speculate this later caused it to break apart.

This is the first time NASA has considered using the microwave NDE method to test shuttle materials, says Zoughi. If successful, the technique could be used to test foam insulation and other composite materials on space shuttles prior to launching.

Preliminary tests at UMR have shown the method's potential for detecting indications in the materials. This news has NASA sending more samples for evaluation. According to Zoughi, because the microwave NDE approach is so new and with such limited use, researchers are left to make most of their own prototypes. NASA is funding the preliminary research work with a $30,000 grant. If the project is successful, UMR may develop a prototype device for examining shuttle insulation or other materials for NASA.