Courtney K. Nagel
Embry Riddle Aeronautical University
On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry resulting in the loss of the seven crewmembers and the shuttle. For the next several months an extensive investigation of the accident was performed by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). The board published their final report in August, 2003 and concluded that the cause of the loss of Columbia and its crew was a breach in the left wing leading edge Reinforced Carbon-Carbon Thermal Protection System initiated by the impact of thermal insulating foam that had separated from the orbiters external fuel tank 81 seconds into the missions launch. During re-entry, this breach allowed hot gas to enter the wing’s leading edge and support structure which ultimately led to the breakup of the orbiter. The CAIB also discovered multiple flaws within the shuttle safety program, the hazard analysis techniques, communication and leadership between management and engineering, and an obstructive organizational culture. NASA responded to the Columbia accident by grounding all space shuttle missions for a total of 905 days while they complied with all the recommendations made by the CAIB as well as restructuring their system safety and communication procedures.
Space Shuttle Columbia
The Columbia STS-107 mission lifted off on January 16, 2003, for a 16-day science mission featuring numerous microgravity experiments. Upon reentering the atmosphere on February 1, 2003, the Columbia orbiter suffered a catastrophic failure due to a breach that occurred 81 seconds into the launch when falling thermal insulating foam from the left bipod area of the External Tank struck the Reinforced Carbon-Carbon (RCC) panels on the underside of the left wing. The orbiter and its seven crewmembers were lost approximately 16 minutes before Columbia was scheduled to touch down at Kennedy Space Center. Within this paper I will discuss the history, mission, and anatomy of Space Shuttle Columbia, the incident and the breakdown in communication and safety practices, as well as information found during the formal investigation by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). History of Space Shuttle Columbia
The Space Shuttle Columbia was built in the years leading up to 1981 when it was the first space shuttle to fly into earth orbit on April 12th. There were four sister ships in the fleet over the next ten years: the Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and the Enterprise. The Endeavour was built to replace the Challenger that was destroyed in 1986. Columbia was the first on-line orbiter to undergo the scheduled inspection and retrofit program. It was transported August 10, 1991, after its completion of mission STS-40, to prime space shuttle contractor Rockwell International's Palmdale, California assembly plant. The oldest orbiter in the fleet underwent approximately 50 modifications, including the addition of carbon brakes, drag chute, improved nose wheel steering, removal of development flight instrumentation and an enhancement of its thermal protection system. The orbiter returned to Kennedy Space Center February 9, 1992 to begin processing for mission STS-50 in June of that year. Primary Mission
The primary objectives of this mission was to research in physical, life, and space sciences, conducted in approximately 80 separate experiments, comprised of hundreds of samples and test points. The crew was divided into two alternating shifts to achieve the most productive use of time for each 24 hour period. The crew’s payload consisted of the following: 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 (Wilson, 2006). The expected duration of the STS-107 mission was 16 long days. Anatomy of the Space Shuttle