It looked like a falling star, but in fact, there were seven.
When Columbia came apart and seven astronauts were killed eight years ago today, it was the result of the same cause that brought down its sister ship Challenger 17 years before.
Yes, the technical causes were different. It wasn’t the solid rocket booster. It was a piece of foam that had fallen away from the massive external tank and hit the ship’s wing, compromising the heat shield. On the intense heat of reentry, the ship’s wing melted away and the ship broke apart.
But the same elephant loomed in the back rooms of management and flight control as it did in 1986. Complacency.
There is an engineering term called Normalization of Deviance. It equates that when problems occur repeatedly without major malfunction, there is a tendency to treat them as acceptable risks, and not consider all courses of action or stop to find a solution.
The concept weighed heavy on NASA following the Challenger accident. On the 24 flights preceding the final lift off, ground engineers noted continuous problems with solid rocket booster seals. They were contracting and expanding in extreme temperatures. They couldn’t safely hold the fuel back. But because the back up seals held, this was considered acceptable.
NASA was driven by earlier promises that the shuttle would fly routine, profitable missions and there would be increased public interest in the program with the flights of teachers, politicians and journalists. There were no actions on the booster problem.
“We thought we were designing a launch system that would be as routine as getting on an airplane and going to Grandma’s house for Christmas,” said Wayne Hale, a NASA manager, in a documentary on teacher Christa McAuliffe, a crew member on Challenger’s final flight. “Now the thing for which we were most proud, caused their death.”
Years later, a different problem was coming up, but the old mentality held. Foam was continuously noted as coming off the tank. In 1988, Atlantis came back alarmingly wounded. In 1997, Columbia had notable damage from pellets of frozen foam. Discovery lost a wing tile in 1999. Atlantis had wing leading edge had burn through in 2000, much like Columbia’s final flight.
Shuttles kept flying. The already delayed International Space Station had to be built and costs were piling up. Long-term solutions were planned. But no one stood down.
After Columbia’s final launch, flight control knew of a debris hit on the wing leading edge. It was noted. The crew was told. But little actual management of the problem took place.
Some suggested using Air Force cameras to make observations of damage to the wing or a spacewalk by crew members could have occurred to assess it. Sister ship Discovery sat on the pad for launch of another flight and could have rendezvoused with Columbia in a rescue attempt within weeks. None of these options were exercised.
As Columbia came apart on that cold February morning, and seven lives in a historic exploration vessel were lost, they really didn’t need an accident board to tell them the cause of the shooting star in the skies above Texas.
They had themselves to blame.
- brianjbradley posted this