Shuttle Columbia (STS-107) and Corruption in NASA:
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.
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.
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.
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.
1. "Space Agency Culture Comes Under Scrutiny" by John Schwartz and Matthew L. Wald of the New York Times (March 29, 2003).