Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster and the Future of NASA

by | Jan 19, 2021 | Essay

Early on February 1, 2003, television viewers watched in disbelief and sadness as the space shuttle Columbia, returning from its mission, seemed simply to break apart. Later in a scathing report, investigators said that NASA’s management practices were as much to blame for the accident that killed seven astronauts as the foam that broke away from the fuel tank and hit the left wing during blastoff. The report concluded that NASA had known of problems with the foam insulation over a long period but had never invested the time or energy to resolve the problem.

Former astronaut and NBC analyst Sally Ride agreed with the findings. She noted that foam had been falling off the external tanks since the first shuttle launch and that it had fallen off on nearly every flight. Ride considered the foam problem an accident waiting to happen, which of course it did. NASA recognized the foam as a serious problem and tried to fix it; unfortunately, it didn’t get as much attention as many other problems NASA faced during the past decade.

Columbia was a sad reminder of the Challenger disaster 17 years earlier. In the case of Challenger, engineers suspected problems with O-rings, but didn’t fix them. It appeared that NASA didn’t learn from its mistakes with Challenger and, more important, that a deeper problem existed: Safety concerns had not been given top priority. According to Ride, while NASA officials did not suppress dissenting views, they did not encourage them. Echoes of Challenger? Ride thought so. The further the Columbia investigation progressed, the more echoes were heard. The Columbia Accident Investigation

Board cited several failures; chief among them a corporate culture at NASA that discouraged the communication of dissenting opinions or safety related information.1 The lessons learned in the years after 1986 seemed to have been lost.

To ensure the vitality of the space program, NASA needed to change its culture, called “a broken safety culture” by Columbia accident investigators.2 Failing to do so would have placed the organization in the unenviable position of relying on crisis management to protect its tarnished image.3 The can-do spirit had to change to one of safety first. Changing the culture required strong leadership and personal investment at all levels within NASA. Budgets and schedules could no longer be emphasized at the cost of safety.

Processes had to be put in place to make sure that anyone aware of a safety problem would come forward and would be heard effectively up through the chain of management.

Safety has not been the only issue putting pressure on the space program; NASA also has been scrutinized over its mission. For years NASA has been facing questions such as, What are we doing in space? What is the payoff? Since the Challenger explosion, the goal has been to conduct scientific experiments and to construct the International Space Station, where people can live and work for months.

But some experts say the knowledge achieved is not beneficial enough. According to Professor Robert Park, the knowledge acquired from either the space shuttle or the space station may be good research, but it simply is not very important. For instance, the shuttle and space station fly the same orbit John Glenn achieved in 1963; much of what could be learned has been learned already. The idea that NASA has passed along useful products over the years, such as Teflon and Tang, has been questioned. According to Park, most of the products had been developed independently; manufacturers found it good business to say their offerings had been developed in the space program.

NASA has continued its program amid concerns over its mission, budgets, and safety.  Aging equipment has been a concern. The basic shuttle design dates to 1969; NASA started building the three remaining shuttles in 1979, 1980, and 1982. NASA planned to use the three shuttles to take up additions to the International Space Station until it is completed, then retire the shuttles in 2010.

In the last few years, NASA has strived to design systems providing multiple opportunities to break any chain of events like the one leading to the Columbia disaster.4 The Columbia Accident Investigation Board required extensive engineering oversight reforms before the Discovery shuttle return to-flight mission in 2005. Set for July 13, the widely publicized Discovery launch was delayed because of a fuel-gauge problem. After making repairs, NASA launched Discovery nearly two weeks later with seven astronauts on board and quickly encountered a familiar complication. Video cameras positioned on the shuttle detected falling debris, including insulating tile and foam. A large piece of foam had broken off Discovery’s external fuel tank during liftoff, but because it did not strike the shuttle, Discovery and its crew continued the mission to the International Space Station. One of its astronauts, restrained to a robotic arm, made an emergency repair during an unprecedented six-hour spacewalk in which he reached the shuttle’s belly and pulled away dangling fiber strips.

At NASA, after two and a half years and millions of dollars spent to fix the foam problem, engineers expressed deep disappointment. Shuttle program deputy manager N Wayne Hale said that NASA was “in the business of flying in space—it’s a very difficult business.”5 The agency considered grounding its shuttles, which it had planned to operate for five more years. Twenty-four more launches to complete the space station had been scheduled. NASA then planned to test-fly a new crew vehicle and start work on an ambitious plan, backed by President Bush, to take astronauts to the Moon again in 2020 and on to Mars in a new spaceship.

Questions for Discussion

1. What has seemed to be the major problem facing NASA? Apply your knowledge of group dynamics and decision making to identify the problem.

2. What must NASA accomplish to ensure the vitality of the space program? Has groupthink accounted for some of NASA’s problems? If so, what symptoms can you identify?

3. What group-decision making challenges has NASA faced in changing its culture?

  1. Linda B Johnson, “Report: Columbia Accident Investigation Board,” Library Journal 130, no. 9 (May 15, 2005), p 58.
  2. John Schwartz, “NASA Grounds Shuttle Fleet,” Lexington Herald-Leader, July 28, 2005.
  3. James Kaufman, “Lost in Space: A Critique of NASA’s Crisis Communications in the Columbia Disaster,” Public Relations Review 31, no. 2 (June 2005), p 263.
  4. Craig Covault, “Layered Defense,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, May 9, 2005, p 50.
  5. Schwartz, “NASA Grounds Shuttle Fleet.”
  6. Seth Borenstein, “Should Fleet Be Retired ASAP?” Lexington Herald-Leader, August 3, 2005.

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