This node is being created in expectation of imminent contributions concerning Space Transportation System mission 107, in light of the events of February 1, 2003. At approximately 8:00 am Central Time today, NASA Mission Control lost voice and telemetry contact with Orbiter Columbia as it passed over Dallas, Texas enroute to a scheduled landing at Kennedy Space Center at 8:16 am Central Time (NASA Mission Control, in Houston, TX, is on Central Time).

STS-107 was to be the last non-ISS mission for the shuttle fleet for some time to come. It carried a crew of seven:

Please keep these brave people and their families in your thoughts during the media frenzy which has aleady commenced.

This flight carried the SpaceHab module for onboard scientific experiments and observation.

Potentially Relevant Events

At launch, video footage apparently captured images of a large chunk of debris falling from the External Tank and striking the leading edge of the orbiter's left wing. This is not an unprecedented phenomenon; the external tank typically sheds both ice (caused from cryogenically-cooled fuels condensing atmospheric moisture before launch) and occasionally pieces of the spray-on, ablative insulation that protects the tank from heat during launch and ascent.

NASA is reporting (later on on 2/1) that Shuttle telemetry before the signal was lost showed the left wing suffering from the loss of hydraulic sensors, lost tire pressure and intense heat.

According to CNN, NASA personnel had reviewed the images after Columbia reached orbit and concluded that no significant damage was done to the orbiter. This event will no doubt be reviewed intensively during the coming investigation.

Debris from Columbia is being reported across several hundred square miles of Texas. Parts came to rest on highways, in backyards, and in a couple of cases on the runway at Nacogdoches airport. CNN is reporting the discovery of human remains in at least one location. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration weather radar imagery for the area and time of the breakup clearly shows a spreading, highly-reflective trail along the shuttle's projected flight path - whether this is due to atmospheric heating and plasma (which would be normal) or due to parts of the shuttle falling, I am not sure; however, the picture is sobering.

Orbiter OV-102 Columbia

Columbia is notable for a few reasons. It was the first orbiter to reach space, as part of STS-1 launched on April 12, 1981. This makes it the oldest active orbiter. In addition, it had (until recently) been restricted from making ISS missions due to its heavier weight and due to its lack of the proper docking port. STS-107 was its second flight following a seventeen-month refurbishment and upgrade designed to allow it to reach the ISS while still carrying useful payloads, as well as to upgrade the docking port and perform safety and functional improvements on the shuttle systems. STS-107 was its twenty-eighth flight.

Terrorism Concerns

To be clear: This part is my analysis, not news coverage. At the time of loss of communications with the orbiter, Columbia was at an altitude of approximately 200,000 feet (63,000 meters) travelling at a speed of at least Mach 6 (some sources say Mach 18). There are no operational military weapon systems (other than nascent U.S. National Missile Defense systems and related SRBM-capable defenses such as the Patriot, the Israeli Arrow, and perhaps a few other high-capability SAM systems) that are capable of even attempting to engage a target moving with these parameters. In addition, any tampering with the orbiter would have been discovered; the shuttle is perhaps the most-inspected piece of hardware in human history every time it flies. NASA's continual discovery of problems as small as slightly-deformed 1/8" fuel tubing should be testament to this fact.

Space travel is dangerous, people. At the speeds and energy the shuttle was at when it was lost, an error in attitude of less than two degrees from straight can cause the events we have seen. The outer surfaces of the orbiter reach maximum temperatures above 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit just 30-40K feet above the altitude at which it was lost; the Shuttle is built of aircraft aluminum, protected only by external tiling and material coverings. If these are damaged, airflow of that speed and temperature can destroy the aluminum aircraft skin and systems underneath it in fractions of a second.

Given all this, please, recall that these are risks the astronauts who flew on Columbia (and who fly on all other craft that leave and re-enter the atmosphere) are well aware of. Their bravery, untrumpeted on the news recently as Shuttle flights became 'routine' again following Challenger and STS-51L, comes from their continuing to do their jobs in full knowledge of the fragility of both their craft, themselves and their tools in the face of the forces which which they must contend.

There's something fascinating in the way the destruction of an American space shuttle rivets the American consciousness. The last time I saw all three national networks pull scheduling for news coverage of an event was, of course, September 11, 2001.

Logically speaking, there's no reason why this should happen. An aircraft going down with all crew would be a newsworthy tragedy, but it would never replace normal programming. Granted, airplanes are normal and space shuttles are not, but I really think it's more than that.

NASA's annual budget shortfall notwithstanding, we still see every last one of our astronauts as heroes. Not just celebrities, real heroes. Why else would there be so much flak over rich citizens buying their way aboard a space station? Because the perception is that they didn't "earn" their way to such a privilege. The Space Race is long since over, but we still see our astronauts as being the honored recipients of a great opportunity, which they wouldn't get if they didn't somehow deserve it, and which we all beg them to share with us upon their return.

It doesn't matter how trivial the mission or their experiments were. It doesn't even really matter if the astronauts aboard were Americans or not. John Denver goes down in the mountains in a private plane and it makes the six o'clock news, but when a group of mostly scientists, all of them middle-aged, dies on a return trip from orbit it makes everyone in the country stop what their doing and take notice.

NASA deserves to be proud of this remarkable truth. It's a legacy they earned back in the days of the Apollo missions and never truly lost. No matter how many Americans tell them the International Space Station isn't worth building, deep down they all believe otherwise, because deep down they all wish they were the ones up there living on it.

Shortly after 1:00 pm CST on the day of the destruction of the Columbia and the end of STS-107, President George W. Bush addressed the nation:

My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country. At 9 o'clock this morning, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas.

The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.

Onboard was a crew of seven -- Colonel Rick Husband, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Anderson, Commander Laurel Clark, Captain David Brown, Commander William McCool, Dr. Kalpana Chawla, and Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli air force.

These men and women assumed great risk in this service to all humanity. In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth.

These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.

All Americans today are thinking, as well, of the families of these men and women who have been given this sudden shock and grief. You're not alone. Our entire nation grieves with you. And those you loved will always have the respect and gratitude of this country.

The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.

In the skies today, we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see, there is comfort and hope.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing."

The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home.

May God bless the grieving families, and may God continue to bless America.

I am not a fan of George Bush, and usually find myself sneering whenever his smirking visage appears on my television screen. However, for the first time, I was able to feel a true sense of empathy coming from our president. His eyes welled with tears as the speech went on and his voice finally broke at the end. All of America couldn’t help but be shaken by this event, even the leader of our nation.

Space Shuttle Columbia's most recent and last mission was STS-107.

Mission Summary
January 16-February 1, 2003

Crew:

Payload:

First flight of SPACEHAB Research Double Module; Fast Reaction Experiments Enabling Science, Technology, Applications and Research (FREESTAR); first Extended Duration Orbiter (EDO) mission since STS-90. This 16-day mission is dedicated to research in physical, life, and space sciences, to be conducted in approximately 80 separate experiments, comprised of hundreds of samples and test points. The seven astronauts worked 24 hours a day, in two alternating shifts. 28 flights 1981-2003.

First flight:
April 12-14, 1981 (Crew: John W. Young and Robert Crippen)

Most recent flight:
STS-109, March 1-12, 2002 Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission

Other notable missions:
STS 1 through 5, 1981-1982 first flight of European Space Agency built Spacelab. STS-50, June 25-July 9, 1992, first extended-duration Space Shuttle mission. STS-93, July 1999 placement in orbit of Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Past mission anomaly: STS-83, April 4-8, 1997. Mission was cut short by Shuttle managers due to a problem with fuel cell No. 2, which displayed evidence of internal voltage degradation after the launch.



February 1, 2003: Space shuttle Columbia timeline.

all times Eastern Standard Time (EST).

8:15 a.m.

Space shuttle Columbia fires its braking rockets and streaks toward touchdown.

8:53 a.m.

Ground controllers lose data from four temperature indicators on the inboard and outboard hydraulic systems on the left side of the spacecraft. The shuttle is functioning normally otherwise, so the crew is not alerted.

8:56 a.m.

Sensors detect rise in temperature and pressure in tires on the shuttle's left-side landing gear.

8:58 a.m.

Data is lost from three temperature sensors embedded in the shuttle's left wing.

8:59 a.m.

Data is lost from tire temperature and pressure sensors on the shuttle's left side. One of the sensors alerts the crew, which is acknowledging the alert when communication is lost.

Approximately 9 a.m.

All vehicle data is lost. The shuttle is 207,135 feet over north-central Texas and is traveling about Mach 18.3. NASA officials try to re-establish communication for several minutes.

Texas and Louisiana residents report a loud noise and bright balls – shuttle debris -- in the sky.

9:16 a.m.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe contacts President Bush and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge when the shuttle does not land on schedule. O'Keefe later says Bush "offered full and immediate support."

9:29 a.m.

NASA declares an emergency.

9:44 a.m.

NASA warns residents of affected area to stay away from debris.

11 a.m.

President Bush returns to Washington.

The flag atop the countdown clock at Florida's Kennedy Space Center is lowered to half-staff. Flags at the White House and Capitol soon follow.

12:15 p.m.

Bush returns to Washington from Camp David in a speeding motorcade.

1 p.m.

NASA administrators officially announce the loss of the shuttle and all aboard.

1:25 p.m.

Bush calls Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and speaks with him about 5 minutes. The shuttle was carrying the first-ever Israeli astronaut, payload specialist Ilan Ramon.

2 p.m.

The president addresses the nation from the Cabinet Room at the White House. "Columbia is lost," he says. "There are no survivors."


sources: CNN Headline News, NASA
Note: this WU is being continually updated as more evidence comes in.

Update, August 27, 2003The final CAIB report is now out. I am slowly digesting it, and will post relevant information here soon. You can download the whole thing (10 MB) in PDF format here. The text below deals mainly with the contents of chapter 3 of that report (download the 1.6 MB PDF file here): the direct, technical causes of the accident. The WU does not deal with any management issues at NASA, nor how the accident might have been avoided or the crew saved.

A picture is emerging (February 28, 2003) as to the likely sequence of events which may have led to the destruction of the Columbia. At present, most of this is a working theory, rather than confirmed proof, but nevertheless, it is probably close. Two months later (April 17, 2003), this is increasingly seen as the best description of what happened to Columbia.

Update, April 17, 2003 In broad terms, the immediate cause of the disaster appears to have been a piece of foam which burst loose from the external fuel tank at 81 seconds afer launch. This hit the leading edge of the left wing. A long, thin, U-shaped seal, or one of the bolts holding it in place, was damaged in the impact. During the mission the shuttle performed a series of manouvres. During one of these, on day 2, radar picked up a piece of material floating away from the shuttle. Although the radar images were not examined until after the disaster, this was almost certainly a carbon fibre seal from the leading edge of the left hand wing. It left a slit-like gap in the leading edge. The seal was almost certainly less strong than when originally fitted due to pitting and ageing.

During the descent phase on Feb 1, sensors within the wing started recording unusual temperatures almost as soon as the Columbia hit the earth's atmosphere. The area behind the loose seal jumped by 350 degrees F (200C) within two seconds. It is almost certain that a plume of air, heated by re-entry friction to thousands of degrees, entered the wing through the damaged leading edge and worked its way through the structure, melting everything in its path. The plume eventually emerged near the landing bay doors. As time progressed, the plume melted the aluminium structure of the craft, leading to the loss of control, and eventually the loss of the shuttle and all crew.


What led up to this disaster?

Right at the start is the manufacture of the external fuel tank, months ago. Apparently, when the silicone-based ablative foam (see below) was being applied in the bipod area—where the tank structure is attached to the top of the shuttle—the epoxy adhesive used has a 90 minute pot life. This means that if the pot is open for more than 90 minutes, then the adhesive may not work as well as intended. Operatives at the Lockheed Martin plant in Michoud, New Orleans report that the time of opening is normally written on a sticky label, which is applied to the open pot. It seems, however, that the timing may have got confused, resulting in the operatives applying the adhesive after its pot life has expired. Also, there are reports that in some cases, those applying the adhesive covered too large an area, and some of the ablative foam was not stuck until after the 90 minute lifetime of the glue.

If there was poor adhesion, then small bubbles of air would remain between the surface of the tank and the foam insulation. When the external tank was filled with cryogenic fuel, these small pockets of air would have liquefied, creating a local low pressure. More air would flow into the region to balance the pressure, and that, too would liquefy.

Next is the history of the tank. it was, apparently, fitted to a shuttle, then removed, and then fitted once more. There is concern that these procedures could have resulted in damage to the foam around the bipod area.

Then we come to the launch on January 16. After 60 seconds of flight, the shuttle encountered a particularly violent wind shear, which may have led to excessive stress on the airframe or the wing tiles. Approximately 20 seconds after that, one or more large pieces of white material broke loose from the bipod area of the tank and collided with the shuttle's left wing. It is likely that any liquid air trapped under the foam surface would remain liquid until the cryogenic fuel drained from the internal tanks, when it would warm up, and expand rapidly, blowing off the poorly-attached foam. This process is known as 'popcorning' or 'cryopumping'.

Update, March 26, 2003 New film footage, subject to computer analysis and enhancement indicates that a lump of foam did hit the leading edge of the left hand wing about 81 seconds after launch. Three of 22 reinforced carbon carbon panels were hit, as were two connecting carrier panels and adjacent underside tiles.

Film from on-board cameras and ground based cameras definitely show two large lumps of material, and possibly three, hitting the wing, with impacts located on the leading edge and somewhere on the underside. The material is seen to shatter on impact. Investigators are looking for evidence that the shattered material may have contained tile debris, as well as pieces of foam or ice. It appears likely that at least one piece of the ablative foam, carrying some polyurethane insulation and possibly some ice, hit the left-hand landing gear door at 81 seconds after launch, at a closing speed of around 500 mph (230 m/s). The debris is described as being the size of a briefcase. At one stage it was thought the debris was just polyurethane foam, and the weight was estimated at 1.2 kg (2.7 lb). However, the ablative foam is up to 10 times denser than the polyurethane insulation, so the weight may have been 5 kg or more. This almost certainly led to significant damage to the door and the heat-resistant tiles surrounding it.

During the mission, a series of events occur, but none appears to have much impact on the ultimate fate of the mission: a piece of material is seen detaching itself from the shuttle and subsequently burning up over the Pacific Ocean. By April 1, 2003investigators were saying this was "almost certainly" a so-called carrier panel from the underside of the wing's leading edge. They added that if one of these panels was missing during re-entry, then— since the tiles are stuck to it—the hot gases would certainly have swept into the wing, eventually destroying it. Meanwhile on the ground, engineers exhange a series of e-mails about possible damage to the tiles and landing gear doors and the tyres. None of these e-mails reaches management levels.

Moving forward to the descent phase on February 1, the laminar aerodynamic flow which is established early in re-entry gives way to a turbulent aerodynamic flow pattern much earlier than normal, leading to unusually rapid temperature build-up on the exterior of the shuttle. Normally the ceramic tiles covering the outside of the shuttle craft protect the fragile inner structure from this heat.

At some point, a quantity of super-heated air, or possibly plasma, enters the leading edge of the left hand wing, snakes through the wing structure, and exits through the landing gear bay. The investigators are speculating that some of the tiles on the leading edge had become porous with age and repeated temperature cycling, allowing a small breach to occur. It is not clear if the air is a small jet which then leads to further damage, such as bursting one or both of the tyres on the landing gear, or if there is a already a large breach in the wing. Either way, the breach becomes a hole around 30cm or more in size. As more superheated air and/or plasma enters this hole, first the sensors go off-line and eventually the structure of the craft is melted, leading to the loss of the shuttle.

March 27, 2003 Investigators have recovered a flight data recorder. Although the recorder is not as robust as those found in commercial airliners, it appears to have survived the incident almost intact. The recorder has valid data up to 18 seconds past 0900. All previous data stopped at 4 seconds past 0900, when communication between the shuttle and the ground stations was broken. The shuttle is recorded as breaking up at 21 seconds past 0900.

March 30, 2003 The data on the recorder shows that the left wing was experiencing unusual temperatures almost as soon as the Columbia entered the atmosphere. Just 16 seconds after the craft experienced maximum re-entry temperatures, sensors near the left wing's leading edge recorded high temperatures. This is over a minute before anyone on the craft or the ground was aware of a problem.

Investigators hope that the data recorded on magnetic tape will reveal the size of the post-launch impact on the wing, which will enable them to get a better idea of the forces involved. Also, that it contains more data from temperature sensors in the wing and landing gear areas.

Separately, NASA has also revealed that the tiles on the leading edge deteriorate with time, and that all but two of the 44 tiles (22 on each side) on the leading edge were the original tiles, fitted when Columbia was built in the late 1970s. Thus, they were almost certainly less capable of withstanding an impact than new tiles. One theory is that a zinc-based primer paint on the launch pad superstructure damaged the tiles. As rain fell on the structure, runs the theory, some of the zinc would have leached into the water, and some of this would have found its way onto the shuttle's tiles. This zinc compound would have reacted with the carbon tiles, leading to microscopic holes. over time, such damage wouod have weakened the tiles significantly. Columbia spent a total of 2.5 years on the launchpad.


Evidence

On the day of the launch, NASA cameras show that a piece of white material measuring approximately 500mm x 400mm x 150mm fell away from the 50m-long tank about a minute into the flight. It is not clear if the material was foam insulation or ice, or a combination of the two. If it was foam, then this represents a weight of around 1.5 kg (3lb). However, if the material was ice, it would have weighed over 10 times as much. The film shows the material hitting the underside of the shuttle's left wing 80 seconds after the launch of Columbia and shattering after the impact. At this stage in the flight, the shuttle was travelling at between Mach 2 and Mach 4. NASA indicated that the material probably hit the shuttle's wing at a speed of around 500 mph (230 m/s).

Two weeks, later, on Feb 1, Astronomers in California report seeing fragments breaking off the shuttle as it entered the earth's atmosphere, while military film appears to show irregularities in the airflow over the left wing, with a trail of some kind visible aft of the irregularity.

Meanwhile, flight data around the same time indicate a rapid rise in temperature in the left wing a few minutes prior to the loss of the shuttle, followed by all 11 sensors in that area going offline, and then that the autopilot was struggling to cope with excess drag on the left side of the craft.

Investigators have recovered a number of pieces of the left wing from around the landing bay door area. These objects were recovered from an area further west (and hence earlier in the flightpath) than most of the other debris. Some of the tiles are seen to have unusual damage, and others have strange orange markings the tiles from the wing and also pieces of the landing bay. The insulation foam on the external fuel tank is coloured orange.

Five of the six shuttle tyres—made by Michelin at around $100 000 each—have also been found. This is the first time any item made from rubber has been found after a spacecraft broke up on re-entry. The two from the left hand, rear landing gear are much more severely damaged than their equivalents on the right side, and show signs that they may have exploded at a different time and in a different manner from either the forward tyres or those on the right hand side. It is not kown whether this damage, or other evidence of burning seen on the tyres, were incurred before the shuttle broke up, or during the tyre's descent to earth.

Ground-based pressure sensors detected a bang, which is consistent with a rapid decompression of air, at about the time the shuttle broke apart. The numbers appear to show that the sudden decompression is compatible with the pressurised crew compartment rapidly venting to atmosphere.

After analysing the last two seconds of data before the ground crew lost contact with the shuttle, it appears that the crew had realised there was a major problem, and may have tried to over-ride the auto-pilot. Other evidence indicates that the shuttle was out of control, and that the crew were almost certainly aware of the fact. The craft's yaw sensors were off the scale, indicating a yaw rate of at least 20 degrees per second. Down on the ground, meanwhile STS-107 Flight director Leroy Cain apparently ended all attempts at landing the craft around 7 minutes before radio contact was lost. His focus was switched to saving as much flight data as possible in a bid to help the investigators of any subsequent crash.


Glossary and definitions

Ablative foam

This is both badly named and appears to have little function. An ablative layer is one designed to burn away when subjected to heat. In this case, although the insulation is called an ablative layer, it is never exposed to that kind of environment. it is a thin layer of soft, squishy foam which is glued to the main fuel tank wall.

External fuel tank

The external fuel tank is the large, brown-coloured pod slung beneath the shuttle at take-off. It contains liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen at cryogenic temperatures which are fed to the shuttle's main engines during the shuttle's ascent. During manufacture, the outer surface of the tank is sprayed with a 1-inch (25mm) thick layer of semi-rigid polyurethane foam. The foam is applied in different layers and the precise composition varies according to the position on the tank. NASA has said up to six companies supply foam to Lockheed-Martin, which manufactures the 50m long by 8m diameter tanks.

Previous incidents show that insulating foam can have a significant impact on the heat-resistant tiles. The tiles, made from a ceramic, are designed to dissipate the heat generated by air friction as the shuttle slows from mach 25 to subsonic speeds high in the atmosphere. They have astonishing heat performance, but are mechanically weak. They will break even under the pressure of one hand.

An investigation revealed that the foam came loose as a result of 'popcorning' when the bubbles in the foam expand and then explode as the surrounding pressure drops. The proposed solution was to drill holes into the foam in order to allow air to escape quickly through the foam. It is thought that the tank on Columbia was using the newer foaming agent. It is not known whether the insulation was drilled prior to launch.


Columbia Accident Investigation Board (www.caib.us)

Chairman:

  • Admiral Hal Gehman , US Navy

Board Members:

  • Rear Admiral Stephen Turcotte , Commander, Naval Safety Center
  • Maj. General John Barry , Director, Plans and Programs, Headquarters Air Force Materiel Command
  • Maj. General Kenneth W. Hess , Commander, Air Force Safety Center
  • Dr. James N. Hallock , Chief, Aviation Safety Division, Department of Transportation, Volpe Center
  • Mr. Steven B. Wallace , Director of Accident Investigation, Federal Aviation Administration
  • Brig. General Duane Deal , Commander, 21st Space Wing, USAF
  • Mr. Scott Hubbard , Director, NASA Ames Research Center Mr. Roger E. Tetrault , Retired Chairman, McDermott International, Inc.
  • Dr. Sheila Widnall , Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems, MIT
  • Dr. Douglas D. Osheroff , Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, Stanford University
  • Dr. Sally Ride , Professor of Space Science, University of California at San Diego
  • Dr. John Logsdon , Director of the Space Policy Institute, George Washington University

Shuttle Columbia (STS-107) and Corruption in NASA:

Basic Overview:

The space shuttle Columbia was first put into use on April 12, 1981. It was used for a total of 28 missions. On its final mission, on February 1, 2003, Columbia exploded into thousands of pieces during atmospheric re-entry. The entire crew of seven was lost, one of the worst disasters NASA has had in its history. See above for crew listing.

STS-107 was scheduled to be a sixteen-day mission, where the crew would research physical, life, and space sciences in approximately 80 experiments.


Search for Debris:

For more than a month after the destruction of Columbia, ground search teams have scrounged the southern United States to find debris. Additionally, search aircraft have scanned the area for pieces of Columbia's orbiter. As an added precaution, the Navy has led dive teams in searching lakes and reservoirs, especially in Texas, where the debris was most concentrated.

By March 4, 2003, a total of 22,563 pieces of debris were found, and 16,063 of those have been identified. The debris weighs approximately 32,100 pounds total, which is about 13.7% of the original weight of the orbiter.


Investigation Panel:

The retired Admiral Harold W. Gehman, Jr. is the head of the Gehman board, a panel set up to investigate the possibilities of what exactly occurred on the fateful Columbia mission. The panel charter dictates that there will be no individual on whom the responsibility will fall. The panel is using a system somewhat like the "storyboards" cartoonists and moviemakers use to show what happened and when. Also, the panel uses an approach called the system of "unknown unknowns", where possibilities are calculated and verified or dismissed.

The specific findings of the panel have been kept secret for the most part, but many issues have been raised during the investigation.


Issues at Hand (Possible Corruption in NASA):

In late January of 2003, three distinct groups of NASA engineers sent emails to their supervisors expressing their concern that there was damage on the left wing of Columbia due to debris during lift off. These warnings were largely ignored, not followed-up, and supposedly "in order to allow maximum output", the crew of STS-107 was not notified of these concerns.

Since the publication of these events, many issues have been raised about the integrity of NASA. Multiple Congressional representatives have expressed their discontent at the small response of NASA to these warnings.

In 1986, Challenger exploded during lift-off because direct warnings were ignored regarding O-ring seal flaws. NASA said afterwards that it would allow a "free flow of ideas", where any employee could make suggestions with an acceptable response. Ron Dittemore, the space shuttle program manager, claims that NASA "encourages employee debate". However, some say differently.

Lynda Bottos was formerly an accident investigator for the United Space Alliance, an affiliate of NASA. In August 2001, a group of technicians accidentally broke open a fuel tank, releasing mono-methyl hydrazine, a toxic gas, into the air. Multiple buildings around the area had to be evacuated. Bottos filed a report to NASA saying that the event should be reviewed and investigated if needed. NASA never responded, treating the report as some misfiled memo. Later, when inquiries were made, a NASA spokesperson claimed that NASA "can't confirm the incident".

In 2002, NASA's headquarters were centralized in Washington. According to Bottos and others, the new Washington NASA administration has a different decision process with a new approach. They claim that Washington is too far from the expertise... Not to say that they are "stupid", but there aren't many aerospace engineers in Washington. Also, due to budget cuts, many of the more experienced NASA employees have left NASA, and those who stayed have less of an incentive to do good work.

Many feel that NASA has reached the time for a revamp and a reconsideration of its values if it wishes to survive in the new millenium.

References:

1. "Space Agency Culture Comes Under Scrutiny" by John Schwartz and Matthew L. Wald of the New York Times (March 29, 2003).

2. http://www.nasa.gov/columbia/foia/index.html

3. http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/spacenews/reports/nmrs/index.html

4. Columbia

5. STS-107

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