The Columbia Disaster

Crockett Grabbe © February 2, 2003

NASA failed again both to put safety first and to prepare contingencies for astronauts to escape disaster, as 7 more die in the space program's heavy focus on putting humans in space. Why did they die? The "root cause" has been identified as an automatic failure control, which was exacerbated if not caused by damage to the tile structure on the left wing from a projectile of insulation that separated from the main tank and collided with it.

However, a very important addition to the cause of the death of the astronauts are 2 facts: (1) The astronauts had not been prepared for any contingency plans for a space walk to inspect, evaluate, and repair the damage caused in the launch. They had 16 days to do that, but the NASA mission planners had not allowed for such safety operation to be made! (2) The astronauts had never been equipped with safety capsules and parachutes to even give them the remotest chance of survival. This is most shameful, because the whole issue had undergone considerable criticism and debate 17 years ago, at the time of the Challenger disaster.

Remember the Challenger disaster? In the 1970's when the shuttle was first developed, a decision was made at NASA to restrict all the development of satellites in the United States to the space shuttle. Missions that were being designed for launching from their own rockets suddenly had to have their plans scrapped and redone because of the switch to launching them from not from rockets, but from the space shuttle while it was orbit. All of our dynamic development of satellites was heralded as being tightly controlled through the space shuttle flights. But then a serious colossal error occurred that stunned the world.

On January 28 of 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger was launched in a flight whose primary purpose was delivering a communication satellite into orbit -- a mission that could have been done much less expensively using unmanned rocket launches. 73 seconds after the launch the shuttle exploded with 7 astronauts aboard. The astronauts were killed, not by the explosion itself, but about 1 minute later by the impact of the pieces of the shuttle hitting the ocean 10 miles down from the site of the explosion. They had no way to escape the fall to their deaths. All they needed were parachutes and a way to escape the falling shuttle debris.

The Challenger had been launched despite the repeated strong disagreement of engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the maker of the solid-rocket booster for the shuttle. The explosion occurred when the seal of an O-ring in that booster failed because the shuttle was launched at much lower temperatures than those at which the ring had been tested. This was despite particularly Engineer Roger Boisjoly's very strong objections, who went to great lengths to inform NASA officials that the O-ring was unsafe at these low temperatures. The momentous push within NASA to go ahead with the mission won, and the shuttle and its 7 astronauts were tragically lost.

The astronauts of the Challenger needlessly 17 years ago met their untimely deaths, and all the evidence indicates the Columbia astronauts did the same a few days ago. NASA has not put a sufficiently high priority or focus on these safety issues for much of the last 20 years, and yet the manned space program continues to dominate the space budget, well exceeding the expenditures for much less expensive and much safer unmanned missions.

The manned program will be suspended because of the Columbia disaster, but unlike the Challenger case back in the late 1980's, the unmanned program will not have to be similarly suspended. The unreasonable policy of requiring unmanned launches to be made from the shuttle, which suspended it at that time, no longer exists.

Now is the time for the U.S. to re-orient the focus of the space program toward the less expensive and safer unmanned missions. Doing so will mean much greater progress in space for this country. It may also help prevent future needless deaths of astronauts.