Columbia: Shadows of Challenger

Crockett Grabbe, Ph.D.

© 2011 

Astronaut Ellison Onizuka answered the press question posed to him about what he hoped to accomplish. He described how he was looking forward to an opportunity to take an emergency space walk. He had trained for such a contingency and hoped to opportunity to use it would arise in his shuttle flight. He of course never got that chance.

The press conference of Challenger astronaut Onizuka was held 2 days before that ship exploded 73 seconds after takeoff on January 28, 1986. The contingency of having the equipment on board to make an emergency space walk was an element of safety, but safety was horrifically ignored in the O-ring problem in that launch. How well did NASA learn the lessons of substantially enhancing the safety considerations?

In fact, when foam struck the wing on the takeoff Columbia on January 16 of 2003, no equipment for a space-walk was on board to inspect the damage. Furthermore, the followup Report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board indicates that most of the NASA officials on ground argued the incident could not possibly have done any significant damage, even though the engineers had no data to support that assumption. However, unlike the fateful Challenger mission, no preparation had been made for an emergency space-walk to gather that data and assess the damage.

The Report on the Columbia disaster indicates that the NASA engineers requested to use spy satellite images of the shuttle to gather needed data for that assessment. Furthermore, the Report states that if those images had been used they would probably have revealed how severe the damage was from the foam impact. However, the top flight managers in a critical flaw also failed to act on that request. That resulted in 7 astronauts losing their lives on reentry, very analogous to the previous flight managers on the Challenger whose failure caused 7 astronauts to love their lives 17 years before.

A day after the Columbia disaster I was interviewed by both a station on satellite radio and a reporter with Kyodo press (Japanese). On both I stated that, like the Challenger accident, the Columbia astronauts may have survived until they hit the ground, and described how an emergency space-walk could have gather essential data on the extent of the damage from that foam collision. I discussed how after the Challenger accident years ago there was the first discussion of providing the astronauts with safety capsules and parachutes to escape a disaster like that, and speculated that if such equipment was available on the Columbia, the astronauts could have possibly survived the disaster.

Whether or not safety capsules and parachutes could have let the Columbia astronauts survive like it could have on Challenger, the failure of NASA to obtain the data and fully check out that foam accident ensured that the astronauts would plunge to their deaths. With space walk equipment on board they could have no only gathered the data to show the seriousness of the problem, but subsequently repaired it.

In any flight the most dangerous periods are the takeoff and landing. The fact that both preparation for emergencies and concern for safety was given a low priority of the Columbia mission indicates that very little was learned from the Challenger disaster. A number of reports from engineers at NASA in the last few years have indicated that it has been given an inadequate priority for years. The Columbia failure was a disaster waiting to happen.

The manned space program is the most expensive item on the NASA budget, well exceeding the costs for much cheaper unmanned missions, and safety needs to be given the top priority for those expenditures. However 14 deaths in 25 years imply it has not been. That is the legacy of the shuttle program, which is close to the end of its days. But NASA is putting the emphasis going forward on the expensive space station program. That is not the most productive space program. Several unmanned programs are doing much better -- never risking a single life.

I first said in a 1989 newspaper editorial that at least as much money in NASA should be devoted to the unmanned programs as to the manned program, and pointed out that missions putting men and woman into space are an order of magnitude more expensive than unmanned mission because of the tremendous cost of supporting people there. There is pressure to cut corners on their safety because of these costs. I would now even suggest cancelling the manned program and the dedicating money to the other missions. Let the unmanned programs blossom.