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Lessons from shuttle Columbia disaster could stave off next tragedy

Richard Tribou, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

ORLANDO, Fla. — “Never again” is the phrase echoed among NASA leaders recalling the last major tragedy in the space program that occurred 20 years ago this week, when Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, never making its way back home to Florida.

But with more spacecraft, more players and farther-flung destinations like the moon and Mars, the potential for another disaster has grown.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who as a member of Congress flew on the space shuttle on the mission immediately before the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, recalled this week how engineers at one of the shuttle’s contractors told their managers to call off the launch because of the weather. The cold was ultimately blamed for shrinking an O-ring that led to the explosion.

“The management would not listen to the engineers begging them to stop the count, and that went up all the way to the top,” Nelson said.

The warning signs for Columbia on STS-107 were out there as well. Nelson’s mission’s shuttle commander, Robert “Hoot” Gibson, told Nelson how he would always inspect the orbiter in space during missions he flew in the time between the two shuttle disasters.

“You’d look at the underside or the sides of the orbiter with those delicate silicone tiles, and he said it was like somebody had taken a shotgun and just shredded it,” Nelson said. “A warning about what was to come.”


The two shuttle accidents, particularly, led to changes in how NASA operates, with a safety-first mentality that can seem to slow down progress at times, Nelson said.

“The bottom line is this. Speak up. A question, even a simple question is more forgivable than a mistake that can result in a tragedy, and each of us has a responsibility to cultivate a work environment where every member of the NASA family feels empowered to voice doubt. Make your concerns heard. Communicate openly,” he said.

The times between NASA’s three major tragedies have been close to two decades each, and now NASA has gone the longest run without human loss of life in spaceflight.

During those runs, though, the American space program featured only one spacecraft managed by the U.S. government. Now NASA has multiple commercial partners with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner flying astronauts to the International Space Station while also working with its own Orion crew capsule for moon missions in the Artemis program.


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