Bea on Columbia
NASA'S COLOSSAL BLUNDER DOOMED THE COLUMBIA CREW!
We start by affirming that the development of the space program has been one of the
great engineering feats of human history. It is also true that, when stated in
relative terms, the safety record has been extraordinary. It is also possible
these successes have given us too much pride and shifted our focus away from what
should be our first priority, i.e. the safety of our crews.
My immediate concern is for Eileen Collins and her crew, scheduled to fly the next
shuttle mission. Courageous and motivated, these marvelous volunteers have trained for
years to meet the exacting criteria established by NASA and, just as their predecessors
on Columbia, will meet the highest standards regardless of the equipment furnished
them. They are being put in the position of validating NASA's program by their
willingness to fly so soon after the Columbia disaster. We owe them more backup
capability than was afforded Columbia's crew. We certainly need to avoid the colossal
blunder in NASA's planning for the Columbia mission.
Let's start with two assumptions. First, that our astronauts are in danger while in
space, whether crewing the space station or a shuttle mission. We do not need to look
past the life threatening fire Jerry Linenger fought while on the Soviet MIR or the
disastrous damage to Columbia's left wing to support this assumption. The potential
for emergency will always be there.
Second, that the space station and each shuttle in orbit are the only backups normally
available in the event of emergency. Just as the crew of the shuttle would be the only
hope for a member of the space station crew stricken with sudden illness or accidental
injury, so too, would the space station become the only hope for saving a shuttle in
Given these assumptions, NASA's colossal blunder was its failure to launch Columbia
in an orbit which allowed docking at the space station. There appears to be nothing
in the reported list of experiments for Columbia's flight that required locating
Columbia's orbit away from our Space Station. Scheduling the launch within a window
of time that would have allowed docking of Columbia at the Space Station in the event
of an emergency seems to have been a safety factor ignored by NASA. After the launch
NASA conducted a strenuous review of the potential harm to the shuttle from the
material dislodged during the initial burn and came to the conclusion the probable
damage was not life threatening. NASA's conclusion was entirely speculative because
the shuttle could not be brought close to the Space Station for visual inspection of
the damage. Docking of the shuttle at the Space Station would have allowed close
inspection of the damaged wing. The breach in the leading edge material of the left
wing could have been discovered and the discussion then focused on the safety of
If no other reason is given for such backup capability, let us consider the aging
fleet of shuttles, now more than 25 years old. After millions of miles in the
extremely hostile temperatures of space and multiple re-entries and launches where the
earth's atmosphere has battered and blasted them, our vehicles are near the end of
their useful lives. Granted, we rebuild them every three years but no-one should be
surprised at equipment and system failures after this many years of such rugged use.
The Space Station, as a safety valve for the shuttle Columbia, offered potentially
life saving solutions. Assuming the shuttle could not be repaired, the crew could
have survived in the Space Station until brought down by Soyuz space capsule flights
or subsequent shuttle flights. If determined to be unflyable, the shuttle could have
been attached to the station and used as building materials or spare parts, et al.,
but the crew would have had an opportunity to live.
Given the apparent breach of the left wing during launch, the failure of NASA to
launch Columbia in an orbit allowing docking with the Space Station was as much a
cause of her crews' death as any failure of equipment or damage to the shuttle's wing.
-- Bernice T. Steadman (Copyright © Bernice T. Steadman)
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