Tributes Mark 20th Anniversary of Space Shuttle Columbia Tragedy

Tributes Mark 20th Anniversary of Space Shuttle Columbia Tragedy

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy that took the lives of six NASA astronauts and Israeli Air Force pilot Ilan Ramon. Colleagues, politicans and others paid tribute to their courage and vowed to ensure a culture of safety as astronauts continue to explore the stars.

Columbia lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on the STS-107 science mission on January 16, 2003. Aboard were Ramon and NASA’s Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Clark.

Divided into “red” and “blue” teams working opposite shifts, the crew spent 16 days in space conducting more than 80 science experiments in the Spacehab module secured in the shuttle’s cargo bay.

Red Team members from left: Kalpana Chawla, Rick  Husband, Laurel Clark ,and Ilan Ramon. Blue Team members from left:  David Brown, Willie McCool, and Michael Anderson. Photo Credit: NASA

On February 1, they began their return to Earth.

During liftoff, however, a piece of insulating foam had broken off the shuttle’s External Tank and hit the leading edge of the shuttle’s left wing 82 seconds into the ascent.

It was nothing new. Foam had fallen from the External Tank during every flight since the first in 1981. Initially NASA shrugged it off even though video clearly showed the impact.

On the PBS NewsHour tonight, Miles O’Brien, a CNN reporter at the time and now an independent journalist, showed the video of that foam strike as he reported it at the time.

Foam had caused damage in the past, but nothing too worrisome as far as NASA and its contractors were concerned.  This time, however, it was catastrophic.

The impact punctured a hole in the Reinforced Carbon Carbon lining the edge of the wing. As the shuttle glided down through the atmosphere, the superheated gases that surround it during reentry entered the hole and deformed the wing. The shuttle was torn apart by aerodynamic forces. All aboard were killed over Texas, just 16 minutes from landing.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined the technical reasons for the disaster, but also bore into the mindset that led so many skilled engineers and managers to dismiss the threat for more than 20 years. They adopted a phrase coined by sociologist Diane Vaughn in her book about the root cause of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy — the “normalization of deviance,” when something that should be unacceptable becomes acceptable because nothing really bad happened before.

In his NewsHour segment tonight, O’Brien interviewed Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) who was a NASA astronaut back then. He and his twin brother, Scott, were selected in the 1996 class of astronauts along with Brown, Clark and McCool.

How had foam falling from the External Tank become “ingrained” as “something that just happens?”, O’Brien asked. NASA spent “a lot of time and effort on engineering and engineering analysis and trying to chase down anything that could be an issue. And this one, for some reason, it just got dismissed,” Kelly replied.

Like Kelly, Pam Melroy and Bob Cabana also were NASA astronauts in 2003. Today they are the second and third top officials at NASA, Deputy Administrator and Associate Administrator.

At last Thursday’s Day of Remembrance honoring all fallen astronauts, Cabana called on the entire NASA team to avoid the “normalization of deviance” and ensure that anyone who has a concern can speak up without fear of retribution. “I  don’t ever want to have to go through another Columbia.” Melroy joined members of the Columbia families at Johnson Space Center, home of the astronauts, on Thursday. Today she tweeted that she misses her friends. In an interview with NPR, she sounded the same note as Cabana: “the key lesson that we learned from Columbia was around schedule pressure but also around organizational silence — making sure that voices are heard inside the agency that have concerns about safety and making sure that those concerns get elevated to the right decision-makers.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who flew on a 1986 space shuttle mission immediately before the Challenger disaster when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, also paid tribute to the Columbia crew today, vowing to “carry their spirit with us” as astronauts continue the exploration of space.

Honoring them by continuing the quest to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars was also the theme of a resolution introduced in the Senate today by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Chair and incoming Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Kelly and nine other Senators are co-sponsors.

The resolution “reaffirms the commitment of the United States Government to create a culture of safety and innovation within all agencies and companies pursuing the exploration of space, including in the pursuit of the United States’ return to the Moon and first visit to Mars through the Artemis missions and Moon to Mars efforts.”

The common thread throughout the tributes is creating that culture of safety and avoiding the normalization of deviance. Veterans of the shuttle program like Cabana and Wayne Hale, former space shuttle program manager and now the chair of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, worry that the lessons may be forgotten, however, as a new generation joins the NASA workforce.

As Hale wrote on his blog:

There are many who have come into the human spaceflight community following that accident.  Some are too young to remember the events at all.  Soon, joining the ranks of those who propose to send frail humans into the cosmos, will be ones who were not even born then.

These fresh faces, building the future, must understand not only what happened but why it happened and how to prevent such ruinous tragedy from happening again.


This article has been updated.

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