WASHINGTON (AP) – Just two days before Columbia’s mysterious breakup during its fiery descent, a safety engineer warned by e-mail about risks of “catastrophic” failures from extreme heat causing the shuttle’s tires to burst inside the spacecraft, NASA disclosed yesterday.

Engineer Robert Daugherty, responding to a query from Johnson Space Center, cautioned NASA colleagues in remarkably strident language that damage to delicate insulating tiles near Columbia’s landing gear door could cause one or more tires inside to burst, perhaps ending with catastrophic failures that would place the seven astronauts “in a world of hurt.”

Such an explosion inside Columbia’s belly, Daugherty predicted, could blow out the gear door and expose the shuttle’s unprotected innards to searing temperatures as it raced through earth’s atmosphere.

Even if astronauts survived the heat, the blast could damage critical systems inside the wheel compartment, prevent the landing gear on one side from lowering, necessitate a risky belly landing or force the crew to bail out, he wrote.

Bailing out would be “not a good day,” he wrote. But attempting to fly the shuttle with only one side’s landing gear lowered would be worse: “You’re finished.”

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