Discovery Guides Areas


Columbia Shuttle Tragedy
(Released October 2003)

  by Yng-Ru Chen  


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Key Citations Short Format Full Format
  1. Space Shuttle investigation board makes recommendations.

    Advanced Composites Bulletin, pp. 7-9, June 2003

    The investigation team examining the Columbia Space Shuttle accident has recommended that the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) develop and implement a comprehensive inspection plan to determine the structural integrity of all reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) components used on future Space Shuttle Orbiter flights. The Columbia spacecraft was destroyed as it attempted to re-enter the earth's atmosphere on 1 February 2003, killing all seven astronauts on-board. The recommendation was issued by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) following the board's finding that current inspection techniques are not adequate to assess structural integrity of RCC panels, supporting structures and attaching hardware. The RCC system is an essential component of the Space Shuttle Orbiter's Thermal Protection System (TPS). Contact: Lieutenant Colonel Woody Woodyard, Columbia Accident Investigation Board, 16850 Saturn Lane, Houston, Texas 77058, USA; tel +1 281/283-7520, website:

  2. Getting ahead.

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 158, no. 18, pp. 30-32, 5 May 2003

    With the space station crew to support, NASA's shuttle engineers are trying to jump-start the return-to-flight work they know is coming. NASA managers and space shuttle engineers are beginning to work on some of the tasks they expect the Columbia Accident Investigation Board will recommend, hoping to get a leg up on the board's report for as quick a return to flight as possible.

  3. NASA's eroding safety.

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 158, no. 19, pp. 32-33, 12 May 2003

    Deficiencies in how NASA has carried out government responsibilities for shuttle safety will be key focus of accident report. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board will cite serious deficiencies in NASAs overall safety program as a root cause or significant contributing factor to the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and her crew. Investigators believe these deficiencies involve a lack of effectiveness about how NASA has carried out the government's responsibility for broader oversight, when it transferred more specific vehicle quality control duties to the United Space Alliance (USA) under the Space Flight Operations Contract (SFOC).

  4. Connecting the dots.

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 158, no. 15, pp. 30-31, 14 Apr. 2003

    Accident Board will issue first interim recommendations as NASA pushes to resumeISS support flights as quickly as safely possible. Searchers in central Texas have moved just west of the main Columbia debris field in the hope critical pieces of the space shuttle's left wing may have fallen there. If so, it could round out the growing body of evidence that the wing disintegrated during reentry because a loose piece of insulating foam cracked a critical heat-shield component during launch. While the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) plans another six weeks of data-gathering and analysis before it starts writing its report, NASA is already trying to fix that most likely cause of the accident so it can resume flights to the International Space Station (ISS) as soon as possible.

  5. Columbia inquiry. Launch impact damage may have been under estimated.

    Spaceflight, vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 144-145, Apr. 2003

    A month after the loss of Columbia and her crew, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, NASA officials, researchers and engineers are still trying to piece together the exact cause of the disaster which caused the oldest Shuttle in the fleet to disintegrate almost 40 miles above the Earth. All Space Shuttle flights remain suspended for the foreseeable future leaving space officials in the US, Europe and Russia with the task of developing scenarios that will keep the International Space Station up and running.

  6. Space: where are we headed?

    Aerospace America, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 16-18, Apr. 2003

    This first column was going to be a look at the beginning of a busy year in space activities, starting with the January launch of the space shuttle Columbia on STS-107, and anticipating the continued expansion of the International Space Station (ISS). Now what we have is questions, memories ... and the continued belief in our journey through the universe.

  7. Columbia - Aftermath of a tragedy.

    Aerospace America, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 26-29, Mar. 2003

    Despite the difficulties now facing the space program, the legacy of the space shuttle Columbia must be the continued exploration of our universe.

  8. One-in-two-hundred chance.

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 158, no. 9, pp. 30,32, 3 Mar. 2003

    Deadly impact from orbital debris is a constant threat. Assessing the unhappy odds is thrust of 1997 National Research Council report. The calculated risk of meteoroid and orbital debris impact to the space shuttle is higher than generally thought, and it is not surprising that NASA officials were pointing to it as a potential cause of the Columbia accident despite dramatic footage showing the orbiter wing being pummeled by external tank debris during the ascent.

  9. Shuttle accident puts 'everything on table'.

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 158, no. 6, pp. 29, 10 Feb. 2003

    Questioning what went wrong with the space shuttle Columbia, and why, quickly exploded last week from narrow technical issues to the broadly political. As the White House hunkered down, Capitol Hill prepared to probe basic assumptions underlying space policy decisions that ranged from shuttle safety funding to building the International Space Station to the need for reusable space launch vehicles. 'Everything is on the table,' said one Capitol Hill insider as plans advanced in the House and Senate for the first hearing in what was shaping up to be a protracted and wide-ranging set of investigations into the U.S. space program and its underlying premises.

  10. Improved tiles and foam still pose maintenance headaches.

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 158, no. 6, pp. 41-42, 10 Feb. 2003

    Space shuttle thermal protection and external tank foam insulation have both undergone significant changes during the 22 years of shuttle operation, yet both continue to create maintenance headaches and safety concerns. The falloff of tank insulation on STS-107 was part of a recent flareup of such incidents that started two flights earlier. It had already become a major part of future flight readiness reviews before Columbia broke apart on Feb. 1. Post-flight tile care has improved from the early days of the shuttle, but still consumes a major portion of orbiter maintenance. Shuttle program officials believe the foam strike seen by ground cameras was insufficient to cause catastrophic tile damage, and think there might be another cause. 'It doesn't make sense to us that a piece of debris would be the root causes for the loss of Columbia and its crew,' said Ronald Dittemore, shuttle program manager. 'There's got to be another reason'.

  11. Columbia debris recovery has cost U.S. over $200 million.

    Berger, B

    Space News, vol. 14, no. 14, pp. 14, 7 Apr. 2003

    Since NASA's Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart over the western United States Feb. 1, the U.S. government has spent more than $200 million on debris recovery efforts. NASA estimates it spent $30 million to $60 million in the first two months of debris recovery operations in Texas and Louisiana. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. government's primary disaster relief agency, spent more than $180 million by April 1, and that figure is expected to grow as debris recovery continues.

  12. Putting it in context.

    Morrinc, F

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 158, no. 14, pp. 30-31, 7 Apr. 2003

    Amid growing evidence of recurring foam problems, Columbia accident board starts probing the shuttle program's sociology. As circumstantial evidence builds suggesting a loose piece of insulating foam brought down the space shuttle Columbia, the board investigating the disaster is starting to focus on how a shuttle program devoted to safety could have missed the danger. While its members are rigorously avoiding jumping to a final conclusion, new data examined by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) point to a breach in the leading edge of the left wing near the spot hit by a slab of foam during liftoff as the accident's cause. Early playback from a data tape recorder that survived the fall to Earth shows temperature sensors in the left wing overheating much sooner after Columbia reentered the atmosphere than was detected in telemetry, in a pattern consistent with superhot gases eating into the wing from the vicinity of the foam impact. Meanwhile, examination of foam on a new tank at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans found more voids where water could collect, boosting chances the foam would pop off again during launch as it also had before Columbia was launched.

  13. Search continues for thermal protection options for shuttle.

    Malik, T

    Space News, vol. 14, no. 10, pp. 20, 10 Mar. 2003

    Well before the Columbia accident, researchers were working on better alternatives to the ceramic tiles that cover the surfaces on a space shuttle's air frame and are so susceptible to damage from the intense heat that occurs during re-entry. But for now the only technology available to protect the vehicle and its crew is the small black tiles now in use. The heat-resistant tiles that cover the belly of a shuttle are only part of the thermal protection system that insulates each orbiter and crew from temperatures as high as 1,649 degrees Celsius as the orbiter returns to Earth at speeds in excess of 27,200 kilometers an hour. The system also includes insulating blankets, white ceramic tiles that withstand lower temperatures, and a reinforced carbon-carbon composite material along the craft's nose and wing edges.

  14. Safety first.

    Morring, F

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 158, no. 13, pp. 39, 31 Mar. 2003

    Crew escape system dispute foreshadows broader space policy debate to come. Independent safety experts on NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) have questioned the agency's policy of counting on the space shuttle itself for crew survival, instead of developing an escape system that could pull crewmembers out of a doomed vehicle using technology that already exists. Panel recommendations on the issue triggered a sometimes testy discussion last week between Administrator Sean O'Keefe and ASAP members that foreshadowed a broader debate likely to come. In the wake of the Columbia accident, some NASA advisers and congressional overseers believe the time is ripe for a major reexamination of the assumptions behind the human space-flight program. But O'Keefe wants to stick to the Integrated Space Transportation Plan (ISTP) that was drafted before the accident, incorporating the lessons of Columbia but sticking to the plan's broad outline over the next 20 years or so.

  15. Making foam stick is tricky.

    Dornheim, M A

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 158, no. 13, pp. 59-60, 31 Mar. 2003

    External tank insulation has been falling off since first flight, but was not considered a lethal threat. A history of the space shuttle external tank written by a key official just five months ago gives good insight into the lengthy design evolution that continues to this day. A leading course of inquiry by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is that tank insulation foam struck the orbiter's thermal protection system. Operators of dangerous equipment like to have a stable configuration, but the tanks have varied throughout the shuttle program, and some of that change affects how insulation might break off. Falling insulation has been an issue throughout the shuttle program and remained so at the time of the Mission STS-107 accident.

  16. Shuttle disaster

    Hechy, J; Mullins, J; Chandler, D L; Sample, I; Kleiner, K

    New Scientist, vol. 177, no. 2381, pp. 4-9, 8 Feb. 2003

    Four articles cover different aspects of the disaster befalling the Columbia space shuttle. The lead article provides what information is currently known about the possible cause of the accident followed by a discussion of past problems experienced with the heat tiles on the space shuttle in the context of repeated warnings about a possible culture at NASA that ignores problems that it does not fully understand. The threat to the International Space Station (ISS) posed by the grounding of the shuttle are discussed from the viewpoint of the imbalance of countries involved in the venture and the greater influence that the disaster may have given to countries such as Russia, which is the other main contributor to the programme. Concludes with the implication of the cessation of US space shuttle flights for the crew members still remaining on the ISS.

  17. Shuttle Service Life Extension Program - Achieving the paramount goal of increased flight safety and life extension

    Fleming, Bruce W

    39th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference and Exhibit, Huntsville, AL, July 20-23, 2003

    As we crossed over into the new millennium, the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) has approached its mid-life. Having served the Human Space Flight Program since 1980, increased ISS demands have been placed on the SSP to remain operational until 2020 and beyond. In order to reduce the risks involved in extending the Shuttle life, this paper highlights Lockheed Martin's dedication and approach taken to identify and characterize key upgrades, with focus on supporting NASA's efforts with extending the Space Shuttle longevity and increasing system safety. This focus is highlighted by our involvement in previous, current and potential future Shuttle Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) activities, including: Cockpit Avionics Upgrade; Crew Escape/Survivability; Advanced TPS Tile, Coatings and MMOD Protection; On-orbit Inspection and Repair Techniques; Aging Vehicle Actions; Auxiliary Instrumentation System (AIS)/Vehicle Health Monitoring System (VHMS); Orbiter Electric Auxiliary Power Unit (EAPU)/Advanced Hydraulic Power System (AHPS); Electro Mechanical Actuators (EMA); Non-Toxic Orbital Maneuvering System/Reaction Control System (OMS /RCS); integrated Communication/Radar System with Embedded Phased Array Antennas; Enhanced Pyrotechnic Controller (EPIC); SRB Electric Auxiliary Power Unit (EAPU) and Thermal Batteries; and Liquid Fly Back Booster (LFBB)/Reusable First Stage (RFS). (Author)

  18. Lost in space? Creating an environment on Earth for building safe and effective space structures.

    Strong, A B

    Composites Fabrication, vol. 19, no. 6, pp. 14-19, June 2003

    The board investigating the Columbia Space Shuttle accident on April 17 announced their preliminary findings and recommendations. Just as most people suspected, the breakup of the Columbia was related to the loss of, or damage to, a few carbon-carbon areas that are an integral part of the thermal protection system (TPS). Even though other missions have flown and landed successfully with some damage to the TPS, those were damages to some other part of the TPS system rather than the carbon-carbon areas. Clearly, something tragically different occurred with the Columbia's last flight. I believe that a careful consideration of this disaster leads to important lessons for NASA and even to the manufacturing of typical FRP.

  19. Topological interlocking of protective tiles for the space shuttle.

    Estrin, Y; Dyskin, A V; Pasternak, E; Khor, H C; Kanel-Belov, A J

    Philosophical Magazine Letters, vol. 83, no. 6, pp. 351-355, June 2003

    We propose a new concept of design of heat- and impact-resistant tile covering for space shuttles based upon topological interlocking of tiles. The key features of this type of tiling are as follows: firstly, the tiles are kept in place by virtue of the geometry of their contacting surfaces alone, so that no binding agent needs to be used; secondly, failure of an individual element does not compromise the structural integrity of the tile assembly and, moreover, a failed tile will be kept in place by its neighbours, thus maintaining its thermal protection function; thirdly, topological interlocking removes the need for connectors or other stress concentrators deleterious in extreme conditions of space flight and re-entry. Topological interlocking is scale and material independent, which permits combining tiles made from different materials in any proportion.

  20. Piecing it together.

    Flight International, vol. 163, no. 4880, pp. 26-29, 29 Apr.-5 May 2003

    As the painstaking task of reassembling the Space Shuttle Columbia slowly progresses, key questions are emerging about how NASA inspected its ageing shuttles, how it handled debris impacts on the orbiter and why it did not request on-orbit imagery.

  21. 'There was zero we could have done...'

    Chandler, D L

    New Scientist, vol. 177, no. 2387, pp. 36-9, 22 Mar. 2003

    The claim by NASA that there was no purpose to be served by photographing the underside of the space shuttle Columbia because there was nothing that could be done if there was damage and there was no way of saving the shuttle crew, because of the lack of time and the restricted air supply/carbon dioxide removal, is challenged. A step by step approach is taken to determine what might have been done to rescue the astronauts with a view to planning what to do if this type of disaster is repeated.

  22. Final draft.

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 158, no. 26, pp. 37,40, 30 June 2003

    Timing of space shuttle return to flight will depend on wording of accident report. NASA's space shuttle chief, and the head of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), agree that shuttles probably can start flying again early next year, since the panel's final report will not recommend a major management and 'cultural' overhaul in the agency - at least not before return to flight. But the exact timing of the return to flight - and its implications for the stalled International Space Station project - will depend on how strongly the CAIB words its relatively narrow recommendations for hardware modifications that must be made before the next flight. Of particular importance will be the issue of on-orbit inspection of shuttles to see if they can safely reenter the atmosphere, and of their repair if damage is found.

  23. Buckling down.

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 158, no. 25, pp. 45-46, 23 June 2003

    Columbia accident board plans more interim recommendations before its final report. Members of the panel probing why the space shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry plan to issue a few more interim recommendations to give NASA a head start on flying shuttles again, and then will try to grind out a final report before the end of July. Among recommendations the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) will make 'as soon as possible' is one calling for future mission management teams (MMTs), with overall responsibility for the conduct of shuttle flights, to be included in more preflight integrated simulations. Typically shuttle crews and their ground controllers work together in the exercises - most of them at Johnson Space Center - handling simulated emergencies designed to meld flight and ground personnel into a cohesive team.

  24. Recasting shuttle.

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 159, no. 1, pp. 32-34, 7 July 2003

    As congressional hearings loom, P 32-34 O'Keefe calls Washington a 'logic-free zone'. NASA will use wind tunnel and computational facilities at the Langley and Ames research centers to totally recharacterize the aerodynamics of the space shuttle before the program returns to flight, reclassified as more of a developmental vehicle, than the operational space transport NASA has been trying to make it for two decades. 'Clearly there is more to understand about this vehicle and we have committed ourselves to doing that before we go back to flying again,' said William Readdy, NASA associate administrator for space flight. Both NASA and the Columbia accident board agree that from now on the shuttle project will be viewed - from a decision-making standpoint - much more like an experimental X-aircraft program than a fully operational system.

  25. Hard data.

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 159, no. 2, pp. 31-32, 14 July 2003

    NASA will continue impact tests on shuttle leading edges to validate analytical models. NASA plans several more months of impact tests on reinforced-carbon-carbon space shuttle leading edges, using the same Texas test rig that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board used to blow a 16-in. hole in an RCC leading-edge panel last week. The CAIB test demonstrated once and for all that insulating foam dropped from Columbia's external tank during launch could render an RCC panel useless for thermal protection during reentry, triggering the fatal Feb. 1 accident. The upcoming NASA tests are intended to put some real numbers behind previous RCC impact analysis that amounted to little more than guesswork.

  26. Safety benchmarks.

    Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 159, no. 3, pp. 31-32, 21 July 2003

    NASA following Navy lead in stiffening safety standards for future space shuttle operations. U.S. Navy submariners-in-training have long studied the 1986 Challenger launch disaster for the safety lessons it holds, but NASA is only beginning to consider such training for shuttle operators as it plans safety activities after the loss of Challenger's sister ship Columbia. Safety 'benchmarks' collected by a joint NASA/Navy team that started its work last summer are finding their way into the management portion of NASA's return-to-flight plans, even before the agency hears from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). An independent engineering and safety center at NASA's Langley Research Center formally established last week will be based on longtime practices in the nuclear Navy, and other NASA reforms seem likely to flow from the ongoing 'NASA/Navy Benchmarking Exchange'.

  27. Escape velocity.

    Aerospace America, vol. 41, no. 9, pp. 32-34, Sept. 2003

    In spaceflight safety parlance, an escape occurs when the rigorous procedures to ensure flight safety break down, allowing a human error or mechanical failure to threaten the spacecraft and crew. Details of the safety escapes (and there are more than one) that led to the loss of shuttle Columbia became painfully evident this summer. The smoking gun in the accident investigation was dramatically unveiled on July 7, when an air cannon fired a chunk of external tank insulating foam into a mock-up of the space shuttle's wing leading edge. The impact of the foam, weighing just 1.67 lb but traveling at 530 mph, blew a 16-in. hole in a reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) leading-edge panel, about the size of the gap investigators believe led to fatal heating of Colubmia's left wing.

  28. Columbia probe shifts

    Covault, C

    Aviation Week and Space Technology; 158 (16) 21 Apr 2003, p.29-30

    In a major development, after new analysis of shuttle debris, the Columbia Accident board is now focusing on the separation or fracture of a wing T-seal as a scenario that could have opened a 1-in wide slit in the orbiter's leading edge where reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) panels are joined end-to-end. (Quotes from original text)

  29. The Shuttle tile story

    Cooper, Paul A; Holloway, Paul F

    Astronautics & Aeronautics, vol. 19, no. 1, Jan. 1981, p. 24-34, 36; Structures technology - Historical perspective and evolution (A98-24801 05-39), Reston, VA, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., 1998, p. 259-274

    Some structural problems associated with the orbiter's ceramic reusable thermal protection system (TPS), which contributed to the delay of the first launch, and their resolution are discussed. The Shuttle design goal of 100-mission reusability with minimum turnaround time between flights ruled out the ablative heat shields (except for some use between elevons). The need for reusability dictated a lightweight nonablative TPS capable of protecting the aluminum substructure from high surface temperatures and, at the same time, withstanding the thermal cycle and environmental loads of spaceflight. The design of the TPS system, its static and dynamic performance, strength deficiencies, and modifications of the TPS, such as tile densification, to correct the strength deficiencies, are described. (AIAA)