Columbia +365

By Keith Cowing
January 31, 2004
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Columbia +365

One year ago today, Space Shuttle Columbia began to return home after a successful 16 day Mission.

It would never arrive.

Within minutes of entering the uppermost regions of Earth’s atmosphere, Columbia began to disintegrate. As it sped through the edge of space pieces began to shower down across Texas and Louisiana. Thousands of eyes watched from backyards. Millions watched on TV as Columbia broke into pieces.

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

As the investigation revealed what went so horribly wrong, NASA would find itself challenged to its very core. Perhaps the most horrible realization was that this had happened before with the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger – and that lessons not learned from that previous disaster may have helped set the stage for this one.

We all know the cause: “the foam did it” to quote Investigation Board member Scott Hubbard. Damage was done to the left wing of Columbia moments after launch when a piece of insulating foam broke off of the external tank and struck the wing’s leading edge.

As was demonstrated later in a test, and verified by sensor readings and debris analysis, the foam had struck with enough force to create an opening in the wing which allowed super hot plasma to enter during reentry. Exposed to the raw fury of this plasma, Columbia’s wing disintegrated from within. The crew was powerless to do anything.

While this sequence of events now seems logical and plausible, it took NASA a long time to overcome the biases associated with what it thought it knew so as to learn new things about how their shuttle actually operates. No one thought that foam could cause this much damage since nothing like this had resulted from previous instances where the foam had come off.

Yet studies had been done which suggested otherwise. These findings never managed to find their way to significant prominence to allow the issue to be addressed, Instead, it was simply waived off since nothing serious had yet to result.

This past week, in reflecting on this rude awakening, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe referred to the “profound implications and lessons learned about how humans failed. We need to remember that every day. 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.”

To drive this point home. O’Keefe turned to the recent triumphs on Mars – and the problems associated with the Spirit rover O’Keefe recalled Rob Manning’s observation that “our truths are often temporary”.

O’Keefe vowed that the lesson learned from Columbia will not be swept aside “It is Important to 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: within moments of realizing that there was a serious problem, O’Keefe and his Associate Administrator Bill Readdy, who had been standing on a runway in Florida waiting to greet Columbia, opened a contingency plan that Readdy was carrying.

Within hours the chairman of the investigation board, retired Admiral Harold “Hal” Gehman was on the job. Within days his team was in place.

Meanwhile, search and rescue teams descended upon east Texas. Aided by local residents and volunteer, the debris was soon spotted at hundred of locations. Of all the images to appear on the news, perhaps the most telling 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. Tons of debris was recovered. The debris ranged in size from rocket engines to small bits of tile. All of it was trucked to a hangar in Florida where it was arranged in a manner to allow investigators to figure out what went wrong.

By analyzing where the debris fell and what condition it was in NASA soon learned that the problem was associated with the left wing. A fortuitous discovery of a data recorder – a device only found in Columbia- allowed NASA to chronicle Columbia’s death throes on a second by second basis.

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

In addition to citing the obvious breakdowns in management and communications, one of the more compelling recommendations was that NASA did not have a focused vision and that one is need – and that it must come from the White House. In the multiple Congressional hearings that followed the release of the final report, Congress would come to echo that recommendation

On 14 January 2004, a few weeks before the first anniversary of the accident, that is exactly what happened. Spurred on by the Columbia accident the White House undertook a focused look at where Americaa had been going in space – and where it needed to go. The answer was outward – back to the moon and then on to other locations in the solar system.

There would be hard decisions that would need to be made. Among the most difficult – and poignant recommendations was the move to retire the Shuttle fleet as soon as the International Space Station was assembled.

While not a recommendation made as part of the President’s space policy, the safety considerations that have amassed as the result of both external and internal assessments recently led Sean O’Keefe to make another hard decision: that a shuttle mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope would present a safety risk which he deemed to not be acceptable.

No doubt more hard choices will lie ahead. Columbia’s end will have ramifications for many years to come.

Finding the technical causes of this accident was arduous, but straightforward. Understanding the human component was much, much harder. Indeed, a year after the accident, NASA is still only learning how to grasp with what happened in the human component – and what needs to be fixed.

In the past year Sean O’Keefe has maintained a constant vigil to keep the accident – and its causes and lessons learned in front of every NASA employee. While many in the agency either do not feel that there are lessons to be learned, many more do. Perhaps no more poignant example of the realization was voiced by Wayne Hale, Deputy Space Shuttle Program Manager. Hale was a member of the Shuttle Mission management Team that made key decisions during Columbia’s last mission.

In a letter to the entire Space Shuttle team last week Hale bared his soul – and in so doing served as an example of just how profoundly some at NASA have been affect by this accident and its aftermath:

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

As Sean O’Keefe has been known to say in private, his Jesuit training has led him to look for open and adaptable minds and to make “one convert at a time”. While the conversion process is far from complete, such very public commentary from prominent managers such as Wayne Hale is an indication that people are getting the message.

The road ahead will be difficult. While a Fall 2004 date has been set for the next shuttle mission, a recent report by the Return to Flight Task Force questioned NASA’s progress in meeting all of the recommendations set for it by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board – and others the agency has set for itself.

In order to return to flight the agency will need to document every launch with cameras. This will constrain launches to daytime – and clear skies. NASA will also need to develop a way to repair damage such as that experienced by Columbia while in space. 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. And an agreement is in place where high resolution imagery can be obtained promptly should the need arise.

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 can proceed.

A year after Columbia and her crew perished, NASA is a family once wounded, and still healing. It is also a family challenged to bounce back – and is doing so in style.

As the Columbia’s crew is remembered at Arlington National Cemetery, twin robotic rovers will be cruising across the face of Mars past peaks that bear the names of all Americans who lost their lives in space. Each rover bears the names of the crew of Columbia.

Who knows what these rovers will learn.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.