back to article Space Shuttle Columbia disaster remembered 10 years on

On February 1st, 2003 at 08:00 CST residents of Texas witnessed the once mighty Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrate into a 12,000mph fireball. Almost 17 years to the day since the Challenger disaster, President G. W. Bush delivered the news to the world, “The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.” Space Shuttle Columbia …


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  1. Seanmon
    Thumb Up

    Nice one

    I genuinely teared up a bit when Columbia was lost. I remember staying up late to watch the first launch on TV with my Gran, then in her 60s and as fascinated with space flight as any 8 year old boy. RIP Columbia ,never forgotten.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Nice one

      RIP Columbia and Challenger.

      At least one of these tragedies could have been averted if it wasn't for the pig-headed attitude of the NASA top brass.

      These people should have been hung out to dry, instead they have been covered for again and again.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Re: Nice one

        Bean-counting that cost lives - I don't know how the bastards live with themselves.

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: Nice one

          I don't know why they weren't summarily dismissed.

      2. FrankAlphaXII

        Re: Nice one

        As a resident of a place that NASA's incompetence and desire to race to the bottom has fucked up beyond all recognition (at least we still have the beach, Knight's Armament Corp, Space X, the United Launch Alliance and Ron Jon), I wholeheartedly agree with you on the people being hung out to dry part. If the Armed Forces ran the program, like in other countries, at least five people would have been fired and possibly criminally prosecuted unless they felt like blaming the dead, which is pretty hard in this case.

        And honestly, both of these accidents could have been avoided.

        Challenger only launched that day in January because Ronnie Raygun's State of the Union address was the supposed to be the same damned day and he was going to harp about SDI, the Space Station, and the Civilian Space Program. That's the only reason. It had nothing to do with anything but Politics because NASA wanted more money and on a part of the Reagan administration's obsession with making the Soviets look inferior. The Air Force told NASA they had never launched during a freeze (yes, if you don't know, it freezes in Florida rarely. That year, 1986, set records for the cold, seriously screwed up both the Fern and Citrus industries. It had been 18 degrees F that morning, the O-Rings were only tested to 40, at the time of launch according to NWS Melbourne located about 12 miles away it was 29 degrees at the time of the launch near noon) and didnt know if there would be any effects, and the manufacturer for the booster rockets warned them as well, as did the engineers at the prime contractor Rockwell International. NASA refused to listen like usual.

        Columbia happened because of people who did know better willingly refusing to check the wing when they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was damaged, and refusing on a cost analytical basis. It wouldnt have cost as much to retask an NRO Electro-Optical satellite for a couple of hours to have a look. But again, idiocy cost lives and much more money.

        Fail, because losing two ships in a fleet of five really isnt a good record.

  2. graeme leggett

    Most telling failure of the system, IMHO

    Failure to include ALL the relevant data from the tile impact tests.

  3. hugo tyson

    Article typo - 12-18 *inches*

    "chunk of foam [...] 21-27in long and 12-18ft wide" ITYM 12-18 inches wide; "suitcase sized" is a common description.

    That aside, good article, I wept too at the time, because of what it meant for spaceflight. ;-(

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Article typo - 12-18 *inches*

      Thanks - it's fixed.


    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Article typo - 12-18 *inches*

      Also described by some engineers as "the size and density of a large fluffy pillow"

  4. MrXavia

    So they knew there might be a problem, decided checking for damage was not 'cost effective' and let them die... An avoidable tragedy..

    RIP Crew of the Columbia.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      An avoidable tragedy

      That was one of the opinions/rumours/conspiracies going around at the time, after management vetoed imaging it with spy satelites or a space walk.

      If they (and the public) knew there was damage there would have to be a rescue mission.

      The orbiter couldn't reach the ISS and getting the second shuttle ready in time and a rescue was tricky.

      So they didn't want the bad publicity of having a crew in space that were definitely going to die - on national television. It would have been the end of manned space flight, or at least their careers.

      1. Steve Crook

        Re: An avoidable tragedy

        It always seemed to me that the risks were acceptable. The 'nauts knew what they were getting into and were brave enough to decide it was worth it anyway. I was sorry for them and their families when they died, but I thought there was far too much fuss made. I'm aware that there were faults in the way NASA operated and they directly caused the deaths of the 'nauts, but NASA needed to fix the problems and we needed to move on.

        Regardless of the rights and wrongs of colonisation, how many lives were lost in building the US through failed expeditions, sunk ships, disease and the rest? Many thousands undoubtedly, but people still went because the rewards were high enough. If we're going to go out into the solar system and do stuff, lives will be lost, probably hundred or thousands if we get serious about it. But there will always be volunteers because for some people the rewards will always outweigh the risks.

        If they were looking for old farts to go on a Mars mission today and there was only a 1 in 10 chance of a safe return, I'd accept an offer of a place. Obviously I'd be expecting at least get to Mars, but I'd take the chance of not even making it into orbit and I wouldn't expect a memorial...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Thumb Up

          Re: An avoidable tragedy

          I totally agree to a mission to Mars even with a zero chance of coming back. I still loathe the "bean-counters" that make these kind of decisions. Ask any of the people in the program, especially the ex-military, to undertake an extremely risky rescue mission and they'd almost certainly say "Hell yes." That's what we do when a mate is in trouble. Always. Still, the mission is worth the cost and I'd cheerfully pay it as well.

  5. The FunkeyGibbon
    Thumb Up

    Has it really been that long?

    Man, I'm getting old. I remember my school writing letters of condolence to Regan when Challenger exploded too.

    Brave people pushing the human race forward - their efforts should never be forgotten and their memory should not be disgraced by never trying again.

  6. ravenviz


    People say the world has gone HSE mad but you will never know if it works as you will not have that 'life changing event'. Let it slide then the risk is realised and everyone says, told you so.

    Risk analysis also needs realistic risk mitigation.

    1. TheOtherHobbes

      Re: HSE

      New Scientist ran a news piece about Shuttle risk assessment some years before either Challenger or Columbia.

      The estimate was that two Shuttles would be lost over the duration of the program.

      Also, I used to know one of the ISS designers (or a designer of an earlier version of it.) She said about the Shuttle - 'You'll never get me in that thing. I've seen the plans.'

      So on balance the program maybe did slightly better than expected, considering it could have done a lot worse and stayed within the error bars on the risk probabilities.

      The sad thing is the Shuttle was always a beautiful kludge. There were better solutions that would have produced the same benefits for lower cost and less risk.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        Re: HSE

        "The estimate was that two Shuttles would be lost over the duration of the program."

        No. The assessment by the The Aerospace Corp was that 3 would be destroyed by the end of the programme.

        Slightly better than expected.

        But 1 in 67 is nowhere near the 1 in 1000s some NASA types were claiming when it was being started up.

      2. Annihilator Silver badge

        Re: HSE

        Also, I used to know one of the ISS designers (or a designer of an earlier version of it.) She said about the Shuttle - 'You'll never get me in that thing. I've seen the plans.'

        There's clearly risk in spaceflight, astronauts know and accept this. As an example, it's a relatively little known fact that the Space Shuttle had a self-destruct mechanism (utilised in the Challenger disaster) controlled by the Range Safety Officer.

        What astronauts probably don't expect and expect though, is that the risks are really poorly managed in the case of both shuttle disasters.

        1. Brian Morrison

          Re: HSE

          The Range Safety system is essential for a vehicle with Solid Rocket Boosters, as otherwise these cannot be shut down once lit before burn-out. Shaped-charge explosives are used to split the casing and snuff out the flame front in the fuel segments.

          A similar thing happens in the external tank, on opposite sides to try to avoid fuel/oxidiser mixing, if it is jettisoned while still containing significant amounts of propellants, but in the Challenger case it had already disintegrated after the initial explosion caused when the SRB ruptured the LOX tank.

          1. Annihilator Silver badge

            Re: HSE

            I know why RSOs exist, was merely pointing out their existance to demonstrate an accepted risk of the entire stack going wrong, which astronauts are aware of.

  7. Steve I
    Thumb Down

    The crew mustz have had several minutes warning - must have been terrifying as they would have known the only possibel outcome.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Not much different from an normal airliner event.

    2. Graham Dawson Silver badge

      Given the speeds involved it's unlikely they even felt it.

    3. Annihilator Silver badge

      It's thought that at most they would have had 30 seconds of knowledge, when the main hydraulics failed, probably even less. Events up until that point had been nominal. The decompression event that followed loss of hydraulics would have lead to loss of consciousness pretty much instantly.

      Unlike the Challenger disaster where it's thought the crew survived until impact, 2 minutes 45 seconds later.

      1. Alex Brett

        As I understand it they were wearing pressure suits, so they would presumably have survived the decompression of the cabin at least for a short period?

        1. MondoMan


          Not sure if they were required to have their helmets on, but IIRC at least some of their personal emergency oxygen systems had been (manually) activated. I also seem to remember some recorded personal message fragments being recovered (and never released to the public), but that might have been from Challenger.

    4. Tom 13

      Re: several minutes warning

      Given the temps involved, I don't know that it would have been even that long in real time, but I'm quite sure it felt like hours in perceived time.

      It was a truly sad day.

  8. The Axe


    And the scientists and managers and engineers all (except one) relied on models to prove that their actions were OK. All their trust was in the model. But had anyone checked the models? Nope. Anyone think of a similar case with models not matching up with reality? Climate change is a clue.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Models

      Space Shuttle Challenger.

      1. lord_farquaad

        Re: Models

        No, in the case of Challenger, models were proving this was below tolerated temperatures ...

        Challenger should never have been allowed to take off

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  9. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    You are having a bad problem and are not coming back from space today

    Nice write-up.

    I remember talking heads rumormongering the rumor that it might have been a hit by Al Qaeda (by on-ground sabotage or presumably hypersonic SAM). Pretty ridiculous stuff.

    Didn't Dubya pretty much immediately after EPIC FAIL announce the MANNED TRIP TO MARS which sank unobserved into the gutter in less than a month?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "those who were in the know"

    "refusal to acknowledge the present danger highlighted by those who were in the know."

    Where are these disgraceful people employed now? Do they have clear consciences? Do they even have names (decisions like these are NOT made by nameless faceless people)?

    The crew, and indeed the honourable engineers, deserved much better. RIP.

    1. Rainer
      Thumb Up

      Re: "those who were in the know"

      I think I read an article on slashdot that mentioned that all the people in charge for shooting down the engineers who saw the accident coming had either left NASA or had been transferred to other departments.

      It was simply to big a scandal to just bury it in a committee.

    2. C-N

      Re: "those who were in the know"

      "Where are these disgraceful people employed now? Do they have clear consciences? Do they even have names (decisions like these are NOT made by nameless faceless people)?"

      I don't know about all of them, but this one is "available for speaking engagements."

      1. ravenviz
        Thumb Up

        Re: "those who were in the know"

        @C-N, great blog post, thanks for the link.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "those who were in the know"

      Presumably anybody qualified to work on the project knew the shuttle was a masterpiece of bad design made more dangerous by bad operating practices? The big difference from the Apollo project is that rather than setting engineers and scientists a challenge and putting in the resources to get the job done, miltary and political considerations were allowed to overrule sound judgement.

      It's the contrast between the thinking of the 'high' Cold War of the fifties and sixties, and the hysteria of the Reagan era when the USSR was a spent force.

  11. AdamT

    The rescue options?

    I have to say, getting another crew to go up in another shuttle which you now know to be at risk of the same failure would be a pretty tough ask. Although given the military background of a lot of the astronauts I suspect there would be a "we don't leave anyone behind" attitude. But imagine having to make that call: "leave them up there or attempt an incredibly dangerous sideways reentry? Or send up even more people who could end up needing rescuing too?"

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: The rescue options?

      Given the character of the people who go for astronaut training, I honestly doubt they'd have been short of volunteers for a rescue flight. Wouldn't have needed a full 7-man crew, maybe 2-3 at most? Brave guys. Mad, but brave.

    2. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Re: The rescue options?

      But a rescue in space would have been one of humanity's greatest achievements; something comparable with Dunkirk that could be celebrated down the ages. Even a failure would have remained a monument to human courage. (And if the crew had known they were attempting a risky re-entry they could have said their goodbyes and set their affairs in order.) Instead we have a monument to the true cost of bean counting.

      Suddenly, I want the tombstone icon back.

    3. Bod

      Re: The rescue options?

      "No one left behind" may have met with, $450million cost for a rescue launch (based on the average cost of a launch apparently).

      yeah, what value do you put on a life, but still I'm sure some very high up would privately argued that it's too high a cost and just knock it up to the risk they have to take.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: The rescue options?

        Yes but on that basis you wouldn't be using $2.2Bn/aircraft stealth fighters against shepherds in Afghanistan while you have kids in your own country dieing of third world disease because they can't afford vaccination.

      2. Rampant Spaniel

        Re: The rescue options?

        Sad but true. Personally I believe, given the risks they take, if a rescue had been possible (and if it was the best option to get them home safely) then it needed to happen. No arguments about cost, just a simple is it the best way if so do it.

        Keeping them alive in orbit would be a matter of keeping them warm, watered, CO2 scrubbed and O2 levels acceptable. There has to be a contingency plan for shuttles to stay up longer due to bad weather so they could have managed to hold on until help arrived.

        As for refusing access to ground telescopes and 'spy sats' on cost grounds, thats truly insane. What kind of souless beancounter would make that decision? Sure retasking a sat isn't easy nor is access cheap, but it isn't about money it is about responsibility. NASA were responsible for their safety, there shouldn't be any bean counting going on.

        1. Tom 13

          Re: Sure retasking a sat isn't easy nor is access cheap

          My recollection from the time is that the spooks had OFFERED the look see, which is what always pissed me off most about it.

          1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Re: Sure retasking a sat isn't easy nor is access cheap

            The book (IIRC) about the incident - claimed that some engineers who had also worked on spy sats suggested they call their friends and have one take a look, but they weren't authorised to request it and the managers who were authorised weren't cleared to know about the sats.

            But the suggestion in the book was that the managers were using this as a deniable get-out = We didn't know about the spy sat capability because we weren't cleared.

      3. Marcelo Rodrigues

        Re: The rescue options?

        Going the cynical way, and don't considering the value of "life", I'd say it would still be cheaper.

        450 million to rescue all 7 of them.

        How much does it cost to train an astronaut? How much is invested, in terms of flights, training, and all? I doubt very much that less than 100 million each.

        They are (were) all military pilots, aren't they? Yes, we have some part of the crew that isn't - but at least pilot, co-pilot and one more, isn't it?

        And it is quite expensive to fly jets and drop (training) bombs, even before taking in account the astronaut training.

        1. ravenviz

          Re: The rescue options?

          I never like to make financial comparisons between different arenas, but $450M to rescue 7 people doesn't compare well to spending the money on benefit projects. We say you can't put a price on life but we do it all the time, i.e. decide to let people die because it's too expensive to justify otherwise. Oxfam's website says £25/month would pay a teacher's salary, equivalent to 30,000 of those teachers for 50 years.

          1. ravenviz

            Re: The rescue options?

            Actually, remember to convert £ to $ but the principle is the same!

      4. Alan Brown Silver badge
        Thumb Down

        Re: The rescue options?

        $450 million was the launch. It was a couple of billion to refurb the shuttles after each flight. This swung on the side of making disposables a lot cheaper - but NASA had no man-rated gear to go on a disposable stack.

        One of the more fanciful "rescue" options for shuttle involved siwnging a bar out the side hatch and firing astronauts out the door at about 100-150,000 feet but it was acknowledged as more "wishful thinking" than practical - and in any case could not be used until after the reentry stage.

        Other rescue options proposed as far back as dyna-soar days involved inflatable bubbles that astronauts would ride in on over a 2-3 day period (with utterly no control over where they ended up)

        Even though it was a horrible kludge from the outset, what really killed Shuttle was the stark reality that disposable rockets are cheaper - paying the russians to use their man-rated kit was a lot cheaper - and a disposable stack cable of sending a shuttle-mass payload (vs a shuttle payload bay sized payload) would have built ISS in a lot less time.

        Of course if they hadn't spent 20 years fartarsing about trying to do flights which justified using a machine designed from the outset to be a pickup truck hauling - and far more importantly returning - space station components, then there might have been a ISS a lot earlier.

        The russians built Buran to prove they could, from publically available documentation for the shuttle.

        The designers realised it was incredibly dangerous as-is and wanted to move the orbiter to the top of the stack, but they were told to leave it as it was so it could be flown in minimum time - but that configuration would never have been man-rated under russian flight rules and was one of the reasons Buran only flew once (Buran's undercarriage could be deployed under computer control. The Shuttle's had to be manually deployed (non-retractable) and that's why it could never fly unmanned)

        (The russians were similarly shocked at how dangerous the apollo LEM units were. After losing several people early on they were acutely aware of the level of bad publicity they'd get if they lost anyone on a lunar sortie.)

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The rescue options?

      A rescue in Space would have been a real high point for nasa and USA. An attempt at repair, or engineering an emergency re-entry might have been an honourable failure.

      But too expensive, too dangerous, let them die --- is an atrocity.

  12. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    IT Angle

    Killed by numeric overflow?

    Because CRATER looked at the hole size, threw a wobbler and crashed out?

    You can bet that went through when a manager looked at those results and said "Can't happen IRL, no problem. No point in upgrading the software"

    When a manager says "Can't happen" you should get very twitchy.

    STS was not a robust system. Apollo 13 suffered an in fight engine failure and a huge explosion but the crew came back. A design built at break neck speed (but near unlimited funding). STS was built slower but near choking funding.

    People might like to consider if the current SLS is more STS or more Apollo.

    1. The lone lurker

      Re: Killed by numeric overflow?

      The Block 2 Apollo CSM design also benefited hugely from the loss of three astronauts during a 'plugs out' pad test. The subsequent investigation turned up massive deficiencies in the design ultimately leading to the robust design that you speak of.

      It's interesting to note that STS-1 (the first real test flight) had a similar issue where the thermal protection system was damaged on launch and hot gas was allowed to duct into the landing gear well severely damaging part of the wheel brace. John Young has gone on record as saying that if he had been aware of this he and Crippen would have bailed out of the orbiter rather than attempt the landing.

      1. Mike Richards Silver badge

        Re: Killed by numeric overflow?

        Atlantis was almost destroyed in a similar foam-shedding incident on STS-27. In that case they got the Shuttle home, but they were very lucky that the damage hadn't hit the leading edge of the wing. But in places the tiles had been destroyed and it was bare metal.

        It was kept very quiet for a long time because the mission was a DoD flight, but Astronaut Mike Mullane gives a huge amount of detail in the utterly brilliant "Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut".

        More info and super scary photos of the damage here:

      2. Alex Brett

        Re: Killed by numeric overflow?

        I think what he was referring to was the way the same overpressure wave which damaged the TPS also caused a body flap to be deflected beyond the point where damage would have been expected...

    2. Magani

      Re: Killed by numeric overflow?

      "When a manager says "Can't happen" you should get very twitchy."

      Like Boeing said about the 787 battery fires?

    3. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Re: Killed by numeric overflow?

      CRATER was the wrong tool. It was designed to predict ice damage during the time between the main engines fired and take-off and for analysing post-flight damage. It was never intended to provide information about impacts in-flight. Unfortunately, NASA didn't have an in-flight tool to help them come to a decision, so CRATER was the best they had and it predicted serious damage to the wing.

      However, CRATER's authors at Boeing recommended ignoring the program's results. The designers knew that CRATER predicted more damage from small ice impacts (which it was designed to calculate) than were found after the Shuttle returned to Earth. They extrapolated this to mean that the software would make even grievous errors when it was asked to predict the impact of an object six-hundred times larger and of a lower density.

      Independently the designers of the tiles were confident the more dense inner surface of the tiles would be safe against the impact of a low-density piece of foam.

      When these two opinions were combined it sounded almost rational that there wasn't a problem that couldn't be fixed between flights.

  13. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    In reality nothing could have been done

    To try to send another orbiter in a rush means potentially losing that one and for a rescue that may or may not have been needed in the first place.

    Even directing the crew to sideslip the orbiter on reentry, providing it was technically possible at all and the RCS had enough power and fuel to do that, would have been a decision which just couldn't be made by a political organisation like NASA. What if there was no need? - the ship would still have to be written off. What if there were fatalities anyway? - try to explain to a bunch of Congressmen that it was not *because* of the non-standard procedure. It is much easier to deal with a handful of dead heroes and "who would have thought it", rather than take responsibility for any proactive action.

    No, from the moment the foam hit, the only course of action available to NASA was to go in denial and secretly hope that everything will be OK.

    OMG, that was a sad day....

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: In reality nothing could have been done

      Is this the feel of losing the IRS dataset on a USB stick in a bus?

    2. Francis Vaughan

      Re: In reality nothing could have been done

      The investigation panel showed how if the damage was taken seriously it would have been possible to have put an astronaut in a position to see the damage and to access it. There would have been time to do this. At this point there would have been an unequivocal need for drastic action. They suggested that stuffing the hole with a selection of on-board materials and changing the entry profile may have been enough to save the crew, it not the orbiter.

      Whilst there is some truth that NASA is very politically directed, they would know that loss of the orbiter would inevitably lead to a congressional investigation where every email, phone call, and every tiny bit of physical evidence and documentation would have been worked through. Once the foam struck the die was cast. They were going to lose the shuttle programme if they lost the orbiter. Senior mangers would have known this. In part, where NASA failed is that senior management didn't know there was even the slightest hint of a problem. The internal culture simply didn't allow for there to be one.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: In reality nothing could have been done

        The internal culture was to ensure that management didn't know there was a problem - the whole purpose of the layers of management in politics/military is to ensure that everyone at the top has deniability.

        An inquiry that shows there were technical failings is OK = "it's rocket science, these brave astronauts, risks for their country etc etc". It's preferable (for the managers) than "discovering" that there was a problem at the time and then having astronauts who the public know are definitely going to die live on national television

  14. Francis Vaughan

    Not just the foam strike

    There were a great many lessons in the Columbia disaster. Whilst el Reg provides a nice write up the basic reason, taking time to look at why it could happen, as well as the what happened would be worthwhile.

    The investigation uncovered a huge number of flaws in management of the shuttle programme. It wasn't just that NASA lost a second shuttle that set in motion the retirement of the fleet, but that NASA manifestly was not able to show that it was up to the task of managing the programme. It was clear that NASA would never be able to get the shuttle programme past losing one in every 50 flights. Some of this stemmed from inherent defects in the shuttle's design, many of which were inflicted on NASA due to the politics and budget cuts in the 70's, but a great deal from issues in NASA's internal culture.

    Mission rules required that the ground control team provided constant oversight of the mission. Yet there was so little concern about the state of pay that the mission controller gave the team the weekend off. Both violating mission rules, and evidencing the total lack of interest in the foam strike.

    Whilst the foam strike was always the prime suspect in the loss of the orbiter, there were other very serious engineering flaws uncovered. The investigation spent some time specifically looking at NASA's processes, and specifically criticised it's "broken safety culture." The external tank manufacture had been so tightened up financially that the position of manager of a particular part of manufacture, and the position of safety and quality control for the same part was occupied buy the same person. Yet no-one seemed to realise the fundamental conflict and inevitable loss of safety this would bring. Ultimately NASA was shown to have not learnt any lessons from the loss of the Challenger. The same hubris, and culture of "we got away with it last time" that doomed that craft, also doomed Columbia. The issue of foam strike was degraded from a flight critical one - where in the original rules for the orbiter this was a non-negotiable flaw that would have led to instant grounding of the fleet until resolved. It was let slide to the point that it was considered a regular "problem" that they would ultimately sort out, and not considered a serious enough to impact flight. An identical mindset as they had for the SRB O-ring seals that doomed Challenger.

    The report on the disaster is worth reading from cover to cover. Whilst there is nice story of forensic engineering, the real story is in the surrounding culture, and the question of just how and why it was allowed to happen.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Not just the foam strike

      Are you perchance related to Diane Vaughan, of excellent book fame??

      1. Francis Vaughan

        Re: Not just the foam strike

        Not that I know of.

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
          1. Greg J Preece

            Re: Not just the foam strike

            Interesting. This is the one I have:

            Contest For The Heavens: The Road to the Challenger Disaster [Paperback]

            1. Jonathan Harris

              Re: Not just the foam strike

              I would also recommend "Contest For The Heavens" - gripping reading, but the political and institutional dysfunction that it documents is depressing.

    2. asdf

      Re: Not just the foam strike

      >criticised it's "broken safety culture."

      Like BP and countless other organizations. Whenever you get enough people together supposedly working on one goal you are going to ultimately get a clusterf__k (yes even in WW2, read Catch 22). Even the Manhattan project and Apollo program had a lot of luck involved in their success (have to admit though project management seems to have been a hell of lot better then too). The fact is people act like a herd animal in groups (change behavior and even outlook to not stand out) and not to mention self interest often comes before group success so for example manager x does what benefits his own career and bank account the most.

  15. J.T

    The worst part about the original Challenger disaster is that under the same conditions during early launch testing of the program they noticed the same exact issues with the cracking of the O rings at low temperatures.

    While many bemoan the privatization of the US Space program, NASA has shown repeatedly an inability to properly respond to issues with this program and many of their nonmanned rocket programs. Put simply, they're incompetant.

    1. Neil B

      Acknowledgement of their failures notwithstanding, I find it hard to look at what NASA has achieved, and continues to achieve, and label the whole institution incompetent.

      1. asdf
        Thumb Down


        NASA started out great but since they decide to piss away 100 billion dollars on ISS with little chance of manned space flight for perhaps generations I think incompetent is an appropriate word for NASA management these days (not to mention their short bus overlords Congress).

    2. Steve Knox
  16. Dave Walker

    @TheFunkyGibbon: Like A Candle In The Wind....

    Mandatory Pedant:

    "Challenger" never exploded, it was torn apart in by aerodynamic stresses when the booster knocked the stack out of alignment according to the Rogers Report.

    If anyone has wondered why the orbiter hangs on the side of the tank, instead of like on top in all of those Chelsey Bonestell illustrations, it's because the fragile orbiter (its wings in particular) is partially shielded by the shock cone from the main tank.

    None of this diminishes the loss of the brave astronauts.

    DX Philly

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: @TheFunkyGibbon: Like A Candle In The Wind....

      I suspect having the orbiter - with it's engines running - perched on top of the 750tons of H2/O2 could be considered a non-optimal combustion outcome scenario

    2. JeffyPooh

      Re: @TheFunkyGibbon: Like A Candle In The Wind....

      " 'Challenger' never exploded, it was torn apart in by aerodynamic stresses when the booster knocked the stack out of alignment..." which point the Challenger's external fuel tank was ruptured, its contents caught fire and it created a huge fireball that resembled an explosion. So you are correct. But it sure looked like an explosion.

  17. Stevie Silver badge


    Rescue mission? The Challenger was carrying a full compliment of crew. Given it takes two people to fly a shuttle, who gets left behind in this pie-in-the-sky 20-20 hindsight "option"?

    Also: Provision for EVA on the shuttle was limited, and sci-fi visualizations to the contrary, there were typically only two suits available that were capable of being used for outside-the-cabin work as I recall, each sized specifically for a given crewmember. It is worth remembering that no-one went outside for a look at the damage to Columbia , presumably because going outside a shuttle is a dangerous business requiring special equipment and not a casual grab yer space-helment and grav-boots affair like what it is on Star Trek.

    So, in order for this "rescue" to "work" there would have to have been a major refit of the Atlantis to bung in more seats, or as they are properly known to those who know how spacecraft work, "couches" capable of sustaining a person through the umptytump G of reentry without turning them into cottage cheese. Then another refit for some sort of airlock-to-airlock transfer tunnel, which doesn't exist outside of the film "2010" and in any case couldn't be clamped to an unrefittable Columbia already in orbit.

    So I guess Atlantis would have had to have been stood down for a bit while the work progressed. Meanwhile the racks of off-the-shelf boosters NASA has waiting in a shed somewhere would be used for resupply. Kinda makes you wonder why there was such a backlog of lift when Challenger was lost if there are so many Deltas or what-have-you just waiting to be pointed upwards and set off, but I suppose there's a good reason somewhere other than the actual non-existence of such stockpiles of rockets on-site.

    As for bailing out: This is not an option other than in the movie Space Cowboys. It was looked at and talked about but the truth is that the orbiter, like every space craft NASA has flown with the sole exception of Gemini, has no provision for the astronauts to leave it while it is in motion. Gemini was the way those concerned about such things wanted to go as a testbed for the future of re-usable, lands-with-a-pilot and has ejector seats craft, but it was abandoned as a concept when Apollo sucked all the money away.

    And for all the crying and wailing, it is the taxpayers who fund these things and who demand LOW BID win the day. Add in the need for the work to be spread around for political gain and you have the makings of a design-by-committee disaster waiting to happen.

    The crew of Columbia were lost to a lack of imagination, just like every other accident of this type. It happens and is part of the risk, which is why we honor the people who ride these machines - at least I do. After all, even if you have a really safe orbiter with ejector seats and spare seats and super airlock tunnels and space suits for all, you're still strapping it to a f*cking great bomb in order to make it do its job.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: Bah!

      This is exactly the attitude we are talking about.

      But .. and in reality ... it wouldn't work anyway ... etc. etc.

      Maybe, maybe not. Didn't try. Who knows. Asses covered? Yep.

      > And for all the crying and wailing, it is the taxpayers who fund these things and who demand LOW BID win the day.

      Bullshit! The taxpayers demands one thing: low, or better no, taxes.

      Whether congress wants to do "more with less, faster" (as long as the "less" does not impact the congressman's state), whether the president and the military need mo' money to fight a genocidal romp against gooks in Vietnam, whether state bureaucracies demand "low bids" out of sheer stupidity and inertia (and industrial policy arrangements and quid-pro-quos) is something else entirely.

    2. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      Re: Bah!

      Steve is clearly an expert - someone who can always tell you why something can't be done.

    3. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: Bah!


      Spacecraft-to-spacecraft transfer does not require a 'tunnel', just a static line and enough spacesuits for the people you're transferring. Everybody has a spacesuit because they wear them during launch - and for a short time a simple bubble would suffice!

      String a wire between the two airlocks using the existing safety line clips, and 'zip' along. Perhaps five minutes each, plus airlock cycle and suiting-up time. Last guy out is a bit more fiddly as you can't put NASA spacesuits on without help, but not insurmountable.

      This does need an MMU to get the static line set up (and maybe dismantled), so send that in the rescue craft.

      As they hadn't planned a spacewalk in the mission, presumably there weren't any MMUs on Columbia and thus the only way to look is sat on the end of the arm. Don't think that reaches underneath so would have to send a person rather than simple camera.

      While that isn't the kind of thing you just "pop out" to do, they could have done it had NASA accepted the need to take a look.

      I suspect the real reason they didn't look was indeed "What if we find something?"

      A very human fright response, and the same reason lots of people don't go get tested for cancers when they first suspect, instead waiting until it's too late to do anything.

  18. Marcelo Rodrigues

    Why not?

    The G forces are not that great on reentry. Some improvisation would be needed, bot not that serious.

    About the space suits, it would be easier than it looks. They would have, only, to endure the passage from one ship to another. A blob, or something like it, would be enough - after all there would be two astronauts with proper suits to manage them.

    It would be dangerous. It would not be easy. But COULD be done. Even if the improvised blob failed, and one or more died, it would be a success all the same.

    About the reentry G forces:

    Improvise an air mattress, or something like this. It would not be ideal, i would not be as safe as the chair - but would be far better than being left up there.

    1. Stevie Silver badge

      Re: Why not?

      So, more unobtanium solutions then.

      Re this "blob" you so offhandedly produce from thin air: perhaps a reading of the account of first Russian spacewalk would be instructive as to the pitfalls of EVA using "everyone knows" technology. And that was in a spacesuit people thought would do the job properly. An improvised envelope could only make matters far worse.

      You are aware of what they use for an air lock in a shuttle, right? How many it holds, how big it is and so forth. Also, the size of the crew compartment even when it isn't full of airbeds?

      I submit to you that at the time it could NOT be done, and that even now it cannot. Space Rescue using improvised gadgets is the stuff of Hollywood. Real world space is far more dangerous and hard to do than it is on the telly.

      1. The lone lurker

        Re: Why not? @Stevie

        No need to improvise.... NASA actually built prototypes of the Personal Rescue Enclosure. This was an inflatable spherical "spacecraft" that had just enough room for one person and enough oxygen for 1 hour. It was intended that space suited crew from a rescue shuttle would use these to ferry unsuited crew from the damaged orbiter to the rescue craft.

        Developed in 1984 and never used and there is very little information on these past the challenger disaster possibly suggesting that they may not have been feasible but it certainly suggests that rescue from a damaged shuttle would have been possible.

      2. Richard 12 Silver badge

        Re: Why not?

        A "rescue bubble" is quite easy:

        Make a foil balloon (like the helium ones for kids) about the size and shape of a sleeping bag, wrapped in a few layers of suitable fabric to protect it from scrapes and micrometeorites and padded on the inside to protect it from the occupant.

        Then inflate it with cabin air, and put a crewmember inside with a nose-clip style oxygen mask as used by the crew of commercial airliners (or some firefighters).

        That will last them an hour or so*, during which they can be manhandled from A to B. Probably one-use-only, (crawl-in-and-glue-shut, then cut open,) so you'd need one for each crewmember plus spares.

        Making a spacesuit that allows a man to do useful work is very difficult.

        Merely surviving is simple - NASA did do some work on these, don't know what happened though.

        * The biggest risk here is actually claustrophobia, as spending too long inside that kind of thing may cause panic.

      3. Marcelo Rodrigues

        Re: Why not?

        A blob, a casket-like thing. Whatever was enough to keep them from dying of exposure of vacuum/radiation. Much easier than a full suit, as would have no helmet, no arms, no gloves, and so on.

        Why a cabin full of airbeds? Assuming there was only 7 chairs, You would need just 2 airbeds. The rescue shuttle would go up with only two people.

        The air lock doesn't have to hold more than one. Keep one suited outdoor. Send another one inside. Go sending the stranded, one by one. Rinse, repeat.

        Doesn't even matter the atmosphere inside. Put everyone inside his/her particular blob, decompress and do everyone in a single go.

    2. The lone lurker

      Re: Why not?

      Back in the golden age of space heroes (AKA the 1960's) there was serious thought given about escaping from a crippled ship and how to return to earth from orbit. Project MOOSE (Man Out Of Space Easiest) was one proposal. It basically consisted of an astronaut strapping on a backpack full of expanding polyurethane that would fill an inflatable heat shield that he would 'sit' in, he would propel himself out of orbit with a strap on booster attached to his chest along with a high altitude parachute. The polyurethane would partially ablate during re-entry and absorb some shock of landing.

      As far as i recall this got to the stages of testing it in a firing chamber at re-entry temperatures and it appeared that it would work. It was, however, ultimately cancelled along with the X-20 Dyna-soar ( a much cooler looking spaceplane).

      There's tons of info about this online but there are some nice conceptual drawings here:

  19. Anonymous Coward

    It's been ten years already?

    Well, I feel old now....

    My thoughts are with the families of those who died onboard the Columbia, truly a sad day and the beginning of the final chapter in the space shuttle program.

  20. jr424242

    Worth reading

    The report is very excellent reading. The precision with which it identifies the mechanics of the failure is astonishing.

    I think the indictment of the "top brass" for not trying to fix Columbia after it was damaged is overblown. It is not a simple call to take heroic (risky) measures fixing a hypothetical problem.

    The real indictment of the "top brass" was for cultivating a culture that ignored many, many clear warnings on reliability and safety on this and other issues, and was unwilling to deliver bad news. On the one hand, this is an organization with Challenger in its past, and had plenty of evidence that things were not generally up to stuff. Nevertheless, an organization like NASA will rally against anyone (high or low rank) who tries to put on the brakes; soon enough, the people to whom these things matter to all leave. That is a problem that will take another 1,000 years to solve.

  21. Johan Bastiaansen

    flaws in management

    Any organisation that allows managers and bean counters to overrule the engineers, is doomed.

    Engineers work very hard.

    Managers and bean counters also work very hard.

    On their career.

    So they tend to be promoted into a position where they can overrule the engineers. And it takes a permanent and conscious effort for not allowing that to happen.

    Stuff like this happens in government, in state sponsored organisations but also in private companies.

    And that's where most projects fail.

    This reminds me of the culture in the banking sector that caused the financial melt down: "if I'm right, I win, if I'm wrong, you lose". Or in this case: you die.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: flaws in management

      I regularly blast leaders for their failures but I do think we have to appreciate that every serious human activity requires some sort of funding. That implies that other mighty, rich and/or powerful people must be convinced to give their money/reosurces to a project. No money, no R&D.

      So for example, we can blast Rolls-Royce all day because of their sloppy testing on the Trent 970 engine, which exploded. But apparently that company has the political skills to make funding available, while others have folded in the meantime. So, don't bitch too much about politicians-managers, they are the ones who somehow made massive funds available. If you want to be pure/honest/clean, then better join a monastery and even those need to be flexible towards their ideals sometimes.

  22. Richard 20

    Degrees F…

    Are you quite serious?

    1. Gavin King

      Re: Degrees F…

      Yeah! This is science-y stuff. It should be Rankine.

      On a practical note, by the time you get to a thousand degrees on almost any scale, it doesn't really matter: I certainly just read it a "bloody hot".

  23. Anonymous Coward

    Some More Disasters, Old And FRESH

    My father was a Luftwaffe soldier/mechanic and he told me of a (I think) Ju88 with a dive-bombing support system which would, by means of hydraulics, pull the aircraft out of the dive. He worked on an aircraft and didn't know how to connect some of the hydraulic pipes/hoses. His report was dismissed by superior officer and the aircraft test-flown. That resulted in the pilots unable to pull out of the dive (because of speed and resulting aerodynamic and g-forces). All that remained was a hole and a few metal parts. Some metal parts were put into the coffin as Ersatz for flesh and delivered to the relatives.

    In the aftermath they tried to blame him, but the whole affair fizzled out, as that would have involved somebody higher-up.

    He also told me about something called "Plombe" (wikipedia doesn't have the German meaning of that thing)

    German WW2 aircraft had Plomben on many critical parts (such as oil discharge screws) and these were stamped with a date code to (supposedly) ensure that specific parts of the aircraft were maintained in regular intervals. "Old" datacodes would imply overdue oil changes and other mechanic's checks.

    Unfortunately, many of his fellow mechanics would simply rip off the Plombe, do nothing useful and put a new Plombe with a new datecode onto the part in question. The objective was to have as little work as possible. Or maybe something sinister, but who really knows. Maybe my father was the only guy who had not yet understood the "orders between the lines" or something.

    I am currently sitting on Gigabytes of customer data which is open to access from essentially hundreds of thousands of co-workers. Nobody really cares, despite the fact the data could potentially be used for malicious purpose involving dead people. If the Chinese want it, they get it. We won't know. Maybe they have it already.

    So, what should engineers and technicians make out of this ? We have all seen our share of complete ignorance from leadership personell. I think it is best to account all of that under "shit happens. There was not enough money to do it properly". Even Boeing and Rollys-Royce are operating at the limits of what they can do when they develop a new product. That's why they are forced to compromise. They would probably not exist any more if they never had the political power to rake in the pork from governments. Without pork, no big-time R&D. Daimler could not afford to properly develop the Diesel motor above, because of the meltdown and the Chrysler idiocy. So they compromised for "ship now and fix at 100Mmetres". Engineer pawns were made scapegoats and had to quit, unfortunately.

    At times I am mad at managers, but if nobody can get it right (including Germans, Russians, Anglos), then so what ? I think we need to accept that there are only finite amounts of money and lots of politics around. Progress in technology and medicine is a road littered with the corpses of users.

    Next time you get mad at "outrageous cost overruns", maybe you will remember the cost overruns of your last project and how it was The Right Thing To Do.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: Some More Disasters, Old And FRESH

      Good story.

      > Unfortunately, many of his fellow mechanics would simply rip off the Plombe, do nothing useful and put a new Plombe with a new datecode onto the part in question.

      Why would they do differently? It was a wartime socialist economy, barely working. Why show pride in workmanship? As long as you don't get caught and shot, you just want to go home. Before it's bombed down or repossessed, that is.

      From The Vampire Economy - Doing Business Under Fascism:

      "The Labor Front secretary tries to increase his popularity, and I have to pay for it. Last year he compelled me to spend over a hundred thousand marks for a new lunchroom in our factory. This year he wants me to build a new gymnasium and athletic field which will cost about 120,000 marks. Now, I have nothing against sports. But, as a matter of fact, the workers nowadays don't care much for sports or things of that kind. They work ten, eleven or twelve hours daily — at least sixty hours a week — and they complain that they never get enough rest. More often than not they take a nap during their lunch hour. Really, no worker is interested in the gymnasium and athletic field. Yet I shall have to build it in order to satisfy the Labor Front secretary. "I am opposed to mass meetings artificially staged to show how harmonious things are in the 'work community.' Neither do I care for all the demonstrations my workers and I must attend, where we must march for hours, shouting 'Heil Hitler.' I was an officer in the German Army during the World War, and I am in favor of discipline, efficiency and social distinctions. After all, I am supposed to be the 'factory leader.' But at such a demonstration I am likely to be ordered to shout and sing by some Party member who doesn't know the meaning of decent work. I must behave as though I were his orderly. Next morning, however, I am again supposed to be an 'authoritarian leader.' "

      > Without pork, no big-time R&D

      Only in the socialistic world of the fake-money giganto-state, in which income and sales taxes, excises and dues don't even suffice any longer but where state even needs to print up its own money to pay for the pork, thus essentially transferring wealth from the populace to the well-connected players. Not to mention that the debts from the wars over 50 years ago haven't even been paid off yet.

      Most of the pork is waste and duplicated programs which burn and crash and have to be written off, or stuff no-one needs (this is called "industrial policy").

      If people want Dreamliners or Reusable Orbital Vehicles, let the economic calculations and the work of investors and, yes, wealth patrons show that this is indeed what is wanted.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Re: Some More Disasters, Old And FRESH

        This isn't the place for a political screed. Downvoted, Mr Monsters.

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

          Re: Some More Disasters, Old And FRESH

          > This isn't the place for a political screed. Downvoted, Mr Monsters.

          WHAT! You bastards... bastards!!

          And I haven't even started yet on the wrong use of the word "anarchy" in Robert Glass' article "Greece vs. Rome: Two Very Different Software Cultures" in which he compares "tool using" greeks and "people using" romans!

          Well, you will never hear it now!

      2. Rattus Rattus

        @ Destroy All Monsters

        This is not the place for your ill-considered war against socialism. Incidentally, you have (once again) disingenuously conflated socialism with fascism which is in fact its complete opposite.

    2. Pookietoo

      Re: wikipedia doesn't have the German meaning

      "He also told me about something called "Plombe"" - lead (Pb) seals:

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Launch was nothing short of ordinary?

    "As far as was apparent to the NASA controllers, the launch was nothing short of ordinary".

    "The Jan. 16 launch had seemed "picture-perfect," in the words of senior shuttle manager Linda Ham, but the next day a routine review of the launch tapes had revealed a 20-inch piece of hardened insulation foam breaking off the huge main fuel tank and hitting the shuttle's left wing". link

    "because of the cold temperatures, if the tank were not insulated, water vapor in the air would readily condense as ice on the sides. At liftoff, the ice would break loose and damage the Shuttle" link

  25. hugo tyson

    "Plombe siegel"

    Lead seal, I guess; like on your utility meter.

  26. censored

    I remember watching it live.

    I had BBC News 24 on in the background and they crossed live to watch the shuttle come in for landing. No-one said why, I couldn't remember a routine landing having been news for a long time.

    Someone, somewhere tipped off news crews that this could be interesting...

  27. Pie

    I read in the paper today that NASA chose not to tell the Astronauts that the damage was so severe that the wing wouldn't survive the descent, as there was no option to rescue them before the oxygen ran out...

    1. Francis Vaughan

      And this was where? The National Enquirer? World Weekly News?

      NASA isn't a person, it doesn't make decisions like this, mostly because it can't. It is a huge, bureaucratic, risk averse, political machine, with 18,000 employees, and up to 300,000 including contractors. (Which would include contractors like United Space Alliance - who were largely responsible for shuttle operations.) You don't keep the lid on a cynical, strange, and stupid idea like this in a structure like NASA.

      The rule of conspiracies applies. Never ascribe to conspiracy that which can adequately be explained by incompetence. NASA had more than enough managerial incompetence to cover disaster conspiracies many times over. Sad truth is that they simply didn't have a clue there was a problem. There had been foam strikes before, they had already made a decision long before to degrade the issue to one that was not flight critical, and they thought that given they had seen it all before, and got away with it, things would be no different this time. So they went home for the weekend.

  28. Spider

    so easy sat in an armchair


    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: so easy sat in an armchair

      Ahhh! Motherland!!!

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Captain Laurel Clark, MC, USN

    She was one bad-ass chick. I have no doubt that if the US Navy had permitted women to become SEALs, she'd have gone out for and made the cut. I interacted with her a few times before she transitioned from undersea medicine to aerospace and remember her quite well and remember thinking she'd go far. And how.

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