Advertisement

Analysis: Columbia impact weighs on NASA

By
KEITH L. COWING

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- One year ago, space shuttle Columbia attempted to return home after a successful 16 day research mission. It never arrived.

Within minutes of entering the uppermost regions of Earth's atmosphere, Columbia began to disintegrate. As it streaked through the skies, pieces began to shower down across Texas and Louisiana. Thousands of eyes watched from backyards. Soon millions saw television images of Columbia breaking into pieces.

Advertisement

Just as Columbia ceased to exist, in the days and weeks following this tragedy, many soon began to fear America's space program would suffer the same fate.

As the Columbia Accident Investigation Board began to reveal what went so wrong, NASA found itself tested to its very core. Perhaps the most horrible realization was all this had happened before with the loss of shuttle Challenger -- and the lessons from that January 1986 disaster went unlearned and may have helped set the stage for this one.

By now, virtually everyone knows the cause: "The foam did it," said CAIB member Scott Hubbard. Columbia's left wing was damaged moments after launch when a piece of insulating foam broke off of the spacecraft's massive external fuel tank and struck the wing's leading edge.

Advertisement

As tests demonstrated and sensor readings and debris analysis verified, the foam had struck the wing edge with enough force to create an opening that allowed super hot plasma to enter during re-entry. No longer protected by its heat-dissipating tiles, Columbia's wing disintegrated from within, its crew powerless to save the shuttle or themselves.

In hindsight, this sequence of events seems logical and plausible, but it took NASA's engineers and managers a long time to overcome what they thought they knew to understand what was true. No one thought the foam could cause so much damage because nothing like this had resulted from instances where the foam had come off and struck a shuttle during previous launches.

This view prevailed despite studies that suggested otherwise, but those findings never managed to rise to enough prominence to allow the issue to be addressed, Instead, NASA continued to discount foam damage as a danger.

This past week, reflecting on this rude awakening, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, speaking about the impending Columbia anniversary on Feb. 1, referred to the "profound implications and lessons learned about how humans failed."

"We need to remember that every day," he said. "One way to do that is to question what we hear asserted as fact. Those assumptions assumed to be correct -- or fact -- were the strongest contributors to the accident, for those assumptions turned out to be false."

Advertisement

O'Keefe vowed the lesson learned from Columbia will not be swept aside.

"It is important," he said, "that we not have a period in which we recognize events and then move and erase it from our collective memories. This is not a question of being maudlin -- but rather trying to learn from our past mistakes such that they never happen again."

One of the lessons learned from Challenger did work. On Feb. 1, 2003, O'Keefe and Bill Readdy, his associate administrator, were standing on the tarmac at Kennedy Space Center in Florida waiting for Columbia to return. Within moments of realizing there was a serious problem, O'Keefe opened a contingency plan that Readdy was carrying. Within hours, O'Keefe had designated retired Adm. Harold Gehman as the chairman of the investigation board.

Within days, Gehman's team was in place, as search and rescue teams descended upon eastern Texas. Aided by local residents and volunteers, the debris soon was spotted at hundreds of locations. Of all the images to appear on the news, perhaps the most poignant was that of a partially charred, but otherwise intact, space helmet sitting on the ground.

Soon, thousands of people, operating in coordinated fashion out of camps, fanned out across hundreds of square miles of Texas prairie. They recovered tons of debris, ranging in size from rocket engines to small bits of tile. They trucked all of it to a hangar in Florida where workers arranged it systematically to allow investigators the best chance of figuring out what went wrong.

Advertisement

By analyzing where the debris fell and what condition it was in, NASA soon learned what some had suspected all along: The problem was associated with the left wing. A fortuitous discovery of a data recorder -- a device unique to Columbia in the shuttle fleet -- permitted NASA to chronicle the craft's death throes on a second-by-second basis.

Gehman and his board would go on to examine methodically all of the evidence to arrive at a probable cause. They also took on the task of understanding how the agency itself had failed and what was needed to get it back on track.

In addition to citing the obvious breakdowns in management and communications, the CAIB also urged a focused vision for NASA -- something that would have to come from the White House. In the wake of multiple hearings that tracked the work of the investigators and followed the release of the board's final report, Congress began to echo that recommendation.

On Jan. 14, a little more than two weeks before the first anniversary of the accident, that is exactly what happened. A year earlier, spurred on by the Columbia disaster, the Bush administration indeed undertook a focused look at where America was going in space -- and where it needed to go. The answer was back to the moon and then on to other locations in the solar system.

Advertisement

Such a major commitment would require hard decisions, however. The first was to retire the shuttle fleet as soon as NASA fulfills its commitment to assemble the International Space Station.

Perhaps even more sobering, O'Keefe canceled a shuttle mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, although under pressure from Congress and the astronomy community, he has agreed to reconsider. O'Keefe made the decision based on safety considerations for the shuttle crew.

No doubt more difficult choices will lie ahead. The impact of Columbia's end will be felt for many years to come.

Finding the technical causes of the accident was an arduous but straightforward task. Understanding the human component has been much, much harder. Indeed, as NASA passes the first year after the accident, it still is only beginning to grasp what happened within that human component -- and what remains to be fixed.

In the past year, O'Keefe has maintained a constant vigil to keep the Columbia tragedy -- and its causes and lessons learned -- in front of every NASA employee. Though many in the agency still do not acknowledge there are lessons to be learned, many more do. One such person is Wayne Hale, the shuttles' deputy program manager. Hale was a member of the Shuttle Mission management team that made key decisions during Columbia's last flight.

Advertisement

In a letter addressed to the entire shuttle team last week, Hale bared his soul, and in doing so demonstrated how profoundly some at NASA have been affected by the accident and its aftermath.

"Last year," Hale wrote, "we dropped the torch through our complacency, our arrogance, self-assurance, shear stupidity, and through continuing attempts to please everyone. Seven of our friends and colleagues paid the ultimate price for our failure."

As O'Keefe has been known to say in private, his Jesuit training has led him to seek open and adaptable minds and to make "one convert at a time." Though the conversion process is far from complete, such very public commentary from prominent managers such as Hale is an indication some people are getting the message.

The difficulties are likely to continue, however. The next shuttle mission is planned for next fall, but a recent report by the Return to Flight Task Force questioned NASA's progress in meeting all of the CAIB's recommendations, as well as others the agency has set for itself.

To return to flight, the agency will need to document every launch with cameras. This will constrain launches to daytime and clear skies. NASA also needs to develop a way to repair damage in flight, such as that experienced by Columbia. Ground testing must be much better at catching potential problems before missions take off. The way that foam is applied to the shuttle's external tank will be changed. An agreement is in place where high resolution images can be obtained promptly should the need arise.

Advertisement

Moreover, the agency will need to find a way to allow dissenting opinion to be heard in a fashion that allows every risk to be considered, while allowing a process wherein millions of things have to work just right to proceed.

A year after Columbia and her crew perished, NASA remains a family wounded and still healing. It also is a family attempting to bounce back -- and is doing so.

As the Columbia's crew was remembered at Arlington National Cemetery, twin robotic rovers are poised to cruise across the face of Mars, downrange from peaks that bear the names of all Americans who lost their lives in space. Each rover also carries the names of the Columbia crew.

Who knows what they will discover.

Keith L. Cowing is editor of nasawatch.com. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

Latest Headlines