How NASA has learned from the Columbia disaster 20 years ago

Twenty years ago today, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart 16 minutes before it was scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The seven astronauts on board would never make it back home.

The anniversary is the culmination of a weeklong period of pain and remembrance for NASA as three of its most tragic incidents occur during the same week spanning from Jan. 27 to Feb. 1. As such, the space agency holds a national day of remembrance to celebrate the 17 astronauts who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of exploration.

“This year marks the 20th anniversary of the loss of the crew of Columbia during the reentry of STS-107. It shapes our culture, forms our decisions, and helps us to forge the way ahead,” Janet Petro, Kennedy Space Center director, said during a ceremony at Kennedy Space Center.

“As more and more people who were present in our workforce on that day of tragedy 20 years ago retire, it is imperative that our culture, our decision making processes remain focused on the lessons that we learn from Columbia, Challenger and Apollo 1.”

The Columbia disaster was caused by a piece of foam insulation that fell off of the vehicle’s external fuel tank and struck its left wing. The space shuttle program was grounded for two years while an investigation board dug into what happened.

Columbia was the second space shuttle disaster after the Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986. The loss of Columbia directly led to the retirement of the space shuttle program, forcing NASA and its international partners to rely on Russia as the sole means of transporting astronauts into space.

Columbia was the first space shuttle to fly in space. The crew on board its fateful 28th mission were Americans Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Willie McCool, and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. That final mission was devoted to science, with the crew working 24-hours a day in two shifts conducting various scientific investigations before strapping in for the return trip home.

“Why do we do this every year? Why do we have a Day of Remembrance?” Bob Cabana, NASA associate administrator and a former astronaut, said during the ceremony. “Obviously, it is to honor our fallen comrades on the mirror, those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in our quest to explore. But more importantly, it’s so we do not forget the hard lessons learned from Apollo, Challenger and Columbia.”

NASA knew about the piece of foam that fell off during launch and knew it was a recurring problem. Officials at the agency also knew that the o-rings which led to the Challenger disaster were known to be brittle in very cold temperatures.

Yet in both cases NASA chose to divert from its own rules and fly anyway. And in each instance, lives were lost.

“It is so important that we learn from these lessons so that they are not repeated again,” Cabana said.

To that end, NASA turned over the development of its astronaut vehicles to two private companies: SpaceX and Boeing. Many were concerned that this would increase the risk of anomalies as private companies might not take the care that NASA does. But so far, SpaceX has proved otherwise.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer, said that every employee working on the crew program knew that any astronauts who flew on their vehicles would have a family, and were reminded daily that they were entrusted with astronaut’s lives.

Together with NASA, the company chose two astronauts — Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — to help them design the Dragon space capsule and ensure that any people flying on it would be safe.

Behnken and Hurley spent years testing every possible flight scenario and perfecting the vehicle’s many systems. Additionally, SpaceX equipped its Dragon crew capsule with onboard thrusters that can push the capsule away from the rocket if an anomaly would occur in flight, as happened with Challenger.

SpaceX’s Dragon mission manager, Sarah Wallace, recently told reporters that each Dragon spacecraft is periodically turned on and examined before crews fly back home. This enures that the craft is functioning as expected and that it hasn’t been affected by any orbital debris or micrometeorite strikes while in orbit.

Thanks to the years of design development and training, SpaceX has successfully delivered 30 people to space so far, and are gearing up for the company’s sixth long-duration crew mission for NASA next month.

As for the Columbia, the pieces of the orbiter are kept in NASA’s vehicle assembly building and are used as a tool to share the lessons of the past to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

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