NASA Operates in the Shadow of Columbia


As administrator Charles Bolden embarks on his annual round of NASA budget hearings on Capitol Hill, there is a ghost in the room – actually seven of them.

It’s been 11 years since the space shuttle Columbia came apart over the American Southwest, a moment in time unwittingly captured by AW&ST photographer Bill Hartenstein with what became the magazine’s cover shot illustrating the tragedy. When Bill took his art shot of the orbiter reentering over an antenna farm in California, the orbiter’s left wing already was overheating as superhot plasma flowed through a crack in its composite leading edge. Seven brave astronauts were lost a few minutes later when the wing’s aluminum structure failed at hypersonic speed.

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It took months of investigation to recreate exactly what happened – a piece of foam “liberated” from the external tank during ascent slammed into the wing leading edge on the way up, rendering it useless to protect the orbiter on the way down two weeks later. Aviation Week was at the forefront reporting on the investigation, at one point ridiculed by then-Administrator Sean O’Keefe for our “foamology.” The possibility that lightweight foam could have brought down an orbiter first surfaced in the fifth paragraph of our first story on the disaster, but no one took any pleasure in ultimately being proved right.

The accident killed the shuttle program along with the crew, forcing the U.S. to rely on Russian Soyuz vehicles to reach the International Space Station since the last orbiter flight in 2011. One of Bolden’s hardest jobs as he tries to explain the fiscal 2015 NASA budget request to lawmakers will be convincing them that the commercial crew vehicles the agency is backing will be safer than the shuttle was. It won’t be easy.

Bolden is a former shuttle commander himself, and a compassionate Marine general who goes out of his way to visit the troops when he travels. But Congress remembers the Colombia Accident Investigation Report, with its findings that NASA managers forgot how dangerous spaceflight can be. “The normalization of deviance” is how one sociologist put it – just because a system doesn’t fail this time doesn’t mean it won’t fail next time. In Congress, some of the more senior hands holding NASA’s purse strings remember the promises made and forgotten in 1986 after the Challenger disaster. They’ll be a hard sell as the administrator promises that the agency has learned its lesson as it certifies vehicles built for profit are safe to fly.

Read our 2003 story: USAF Imagery Confirms Columbia Wing Damaged


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