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Shuttle Tragedy Starts Turbulent Year for NASA

This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series

Tragedy came again to the U.S. space agency in 2003. Seven astronauts died in February when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated in air minutes before their scheduled landing. The mishap occurred 17 years almost to the day after the explosion of the shuttle Challenger killed seven crew members as they headed to orbit. The latest accident left a big gap in the U.S. manned spaceflight program and set back construction of the international space station. But it may lead to a new direction in U.S. space exploration.

You could hear the excitement of NASA mission control in the Columbia launch countdown on January 16.

But 16 days later, the excitement turned to grief when the seven crew members, including the first from Israel and an Indian-born astronaut, went to their deaths in a hail of shuttle debris over Texas.

At the time of the disaster, neither NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe nor anyone else knew that the orbiter had begun to break up as soon as it re-entered the atmosphere and lost pieces on a narrow pathway thousands of kilometers long. "This is indeed a tragic day for the NASA family, for the families of the astronauts, and likewise tragic for the nation," said Mr. O'Keefe.

The first sign of trouble came long before the accident itself. During launch, a piece of hard insulating foam broke away from Columbia's huge external fuel tank and smashed into the front edge of the orbiter's left wing.

NASA played down the incident. Even in the days after the disaster, shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore insisted that a piece of foam could not damage a wing designed to withstand the rigors of space. "Right now it just does not make sense to us that a piece of debris would be the root cause for the loss of Columbia and its crew," he said. "There has got to be another reason."

But a seven-month long independent external investigation showed otherwise. In a telling test, a panel of aviation accident experts shot a piece of the foam from a cannon at a shuttle wing replica. The experiment left a gaping hole in the test wing and little doubt about the accident's cause.

But the investigators' final report in August also found that NASA's management practices were as much a cause of the shuttle disaster as the foam. It determined that shuttle managers had ignored engineers' concerns about the foam strike and rejected their pleas to mount an in-orbit investigation of possible damage.

Investigation panel member John Barry, an Air Force major general, said this was an example of unsafe practices the space agency had developed over the years in reaction to severe budget shortages. "NASA had conflicting goals of cost, schedule, and safety. And unfortunately, safety lost out in a lot of areas to the mandates of operational requirements," he said.

Now the shuttle fleet remains grounded until at least next September as NASA fixes the technical and managerial problems that led to the tragedy. Russian spacecraft have taken over the duties of launching crews and supplies to the international space station, but the teams are merely caretakers, maintaining the outpost until shuttles return again to finish its construction.

In the wake of Columbia's demise, Congress heard pleas for an overhaul of NASA's manned space program. Experts like NASA's former head of space science, Wesley Huntress, told lawmakers that the present projects are too limited. "We're stuck in low Earth orbit when the challenge is to move outward to those exotic places in the solar system where we have been given tantalizing glimpses from our robotic exploration program," he said.

The Bush administration is reviewing U.S. space policy, and recent news reports say it is considering a new moon exploration program. Other speculation involves a human journey to Mars. Whatever the mission, George Washington University space policy analyst John Logsdon said the rationale for it is the Columbia break-up. "I think it's the aftermath of the Columbia accident and the criticism in the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that the country had been drifting in human spaceflight without any overarching goal or guiding mandate for 30 years. The Congress has been calling for the president to articulate such a mandate, and I think the White house has decided that it's time to do it," he said.

The White House says there is no timetable to complete the space policy review and no plans yet for President Bush to announce a new manned mission.