Columbia Disaster (2003)
by Michael Vigilante
On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart while re-entering the atmosphere over Texas, killing all seven crew members on board. This was the second largest disaster in space shuttle history, costing NASA a $7 billion lost space shuttle.
Investigator reports determined that the cause of the accident was a faulty design in the External Tank. A small piece of insulating foam broke off the tank just after launch and hit the Shuttle’s left wing at a very high velocity. The hole in the thermal protection tile allowed super-heated atmospheric air to pass through, which was produced when the shuttle entered Earth's atmosphere. The penetrating heat destroyed the left wing. At an altitude of 42,672m, the crew module separated from the fuselage, triggering instant depressurization. It also led to the complete destruction and separation of the rest of the shuttle. Later, it was revealed that NASA knew that the wing was penetrated through pictures that they took before the shuttle was scheduled to return home. They did not enlighten the crew members on the circumstances because they believed that it was impossible to fix the damage delt to the shuttle. So it was deemed inevitable for a disaster to occur.
Someone had to take the blame for the event. NASA reassigned important people involved, including Ron Dittemore (Shuttle Program Manager), General Roy Bridges (Director of the Kennedy Space Center), and Linda Ham (Head of Mission Management). Many changes were also made in shuttle design and program procedures. The External Tank Thermal Protection System was redesigned to lessen foam shedding. Video cameras were installed on the External Tank, boosters, and impact sensors set up on the Shuttle nose. Even ground engineers used these cameras to inspect the TPS tiles. The Columbia Disaster was also the first space accident that was a potential threat to the public. The disaster made NASA include procedures to decrease potential public catastrophes from disfunctional space shuttles entering Earth. NASA worked with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop this mishap response system. NASA implied a new safety procedure to their space and shuttle programs to prevent another Columbia Disaster to occur.