In the previous article, we talked about the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster (1986). In this article – we will cover briefly what happened, causes, and learn from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster (2003).
On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during atmospheric entry, killing all seven crew members. During the launch of STS-107, Columbia’s 28th mission, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the Space Shuttle external tank and struck the left wing of the orbiter. The shuttle’s main fuel tank was covered in thermal insulation foam intended to prevent ice from forming when the tank is full of liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Such ice could damage the shuttle if shed during lift-off. At 81.7 seconds after launch from Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39-A, a suitcase-sized piece of foam broke off from the external tank (ET), striking Columbia’s left wing reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) panels. As demonstrated by ground experiments conducted by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, this likely created a six-to-ten-inch diameter (15 to 25 cm) hole, allowing hot gases to enter the wing when Columbia later re-entered the atmosphere. At the time of the foam strike, the orbiter was at an altitude of about 65,600 feet (20.0 km; 12.42 mi), traveling at Mach 2.46.
Bipod ramp insulation had been observed falling off, in whole or in part, on four previous flights: STS-7 (1983), STS-32 (1990), STS-50 (1992), and most recently STS-112 (just two launches before STS-107). All affected shuttle missions were completed successfully. NASA management came to refer to this phenomenon as “foam shedding”. As with the O-ring erosion problems that ultimately doomed the Space Shuttle Challenger, NASA management became accustomed to these phenomena when no serious consequences resulted from these earlier episodes. This phenomenon was termed “normalization of deviance” by sociologist Diane Vaughan in her book on the Challenger launch decision process.
Following the loss of Columbia, the space shuttle program was suspended. The further construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was also delayed, as the space shuttles were the only available delivery vehicle for station modules. The station was supplied using Russian unmanned Progress ships, and crews were exchanged using Russian-manned Soyuz spacecraft, and forced to operate on a skeleton crew of two.
Learnings and after-math
A lot of reforms were taken. Since the Columbia disaster, astronauts do mandatory spacewalks to inspect the shuttle damage during ascent, as well as a video inspection. Further, if the damage is reported, a toolbox is provided onboard to repair.
A wish of many, that these reforms, came earlier…