Like Crashed US Airways Plane, Space Shuttle Has Had Bird Collision

NASA has worried for years about the risk of a catastrophic bird strike.

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Today's crash of a U.S. Airways jet into the Hudson River following the aircraft's collision with birds isn't the first or only problem flying machines have had with flying animals. In fact, NASA has been concerned for years about the possibility of a catastrophic post-launch collision of its shuttles with vultures that live in the area surrounding the launch site.

As I reported for National Geographic News in 2006:

During a launch [in 2005], Discovery's external fuel tank struck one of the birds a few seconds after takeoff. "There happened to be a group of three vultures flying over the vehicle, and we hit one of them," said Steve Payne, NASA's ground-based shuttle test director. Luckily, he said, "We weren't going very fast." The shuttle was still building up speed as it lifted off the launch pad, so the impact wasn't too intense. Also, the collision occurred on the side of the fuel tank opposite the shuttle, or orbiter, so the hapless bird fell away without striking the orbiter's fragile underbelly. "It could conceivably have done damage if it had come over the top side and hit the orbiter," Payne said. In 2003 a piece of foam insulation from the shuttle Columbia fell and fatally damaged the craft.

NASA has dealt with the problem by becoming vigilant about cleaning up the road kill that the vultures feed on. As my colleague Maura Judkis notes, some airports have used dogs or falcons to try to reduce the local population of birds. Since bird strikes typically occur at low altitude, and are therefore a problem primarily when aircraft (or spacecraft) are either taking off or landing, it is possible for authorities to focus on a limited geographical area when addressing the problem.