Launching a Space Shuttle has always been a tricky business. With so many complexities to handle and parameters to fulfill simultaneously, it involves a high level of risk. On 1st February 2003, the Flight Control Team at Columbia did not report any issues or problems related to the planned de-orbit and re-entry. The team had indicated no concerns about the debris impact to the left wing during ascent, and it seemed like any other re-entry since all the systems were normal and the weather observations and forecasts were within guidelines. However, as Columbia descended from space into the atmosphere, the heat produced by air molecules colliding with the Orbiter typically caused wing leading-edge temperatures to rise steadily. In the events that followed, a broken message was recorded from the mission commander: "Roger, uh, bu" This was the last message from the crew. Soon after that, the space shuttle started disintegrating causing a loud boom and debris being scattered in the clear skies of Dallas.
In case of any space program, the margin of error has to be next to nil since it not only entails billions of dollars of public money but also many precious lives. With Columbia, too, although the risk probability was extremely high, the consequences were still acceptable. So what went wrong According to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), politics, budgets, schedule pressure and managerial complacency all contributed in causing the Columbia disaster. The CAIB report also delved deeply into the underlying organizational and cultural issues that led to the accident. However, the most apparent cause seems to be inaccurate risk assessment. In a risk-management scenario similar to the Challenger disaster of 1986, NASA management failed to recognize the relevance of engineering concerns for safety. They not only disregarded engineer requests for imaging to inspect the possible damage caused during the liftoff but also did not deem it necessary to respond to engineer requests regarding the status of astronaut inspection of the left wing. Since the top brass at NASA believed that nothing could be done even if any damage was detected, they downplayed the seriousness of the situation. This affected their ultimate decision on investigation urgency, thoroughness and any possible contingency actions.
What happened on 1st February 2003 exposed NASA's flawed decision-making and risk-assessment processes. More importantly, it highlighted the lack of coordination between different departments within NASA as well as the lack of communication to deal with an emergency. As per the CAIB report, NASA had two possible contingency options before it, had it acted in time- a rescue mission by the shuttle Atlantis, and an emergency spacewalk by the astronauts on board to attempt the repairs of the left wing thermal protection. However, none of the two options were employed since they never envisaged the magnitude of the danger involved. Thus, according to me human as well as mechanical error contributed towards the eventual destruction of the Space Shuttle on its way back home.
To make sure that such mishaps are not repeated in the future, we must learn our lessons well. No doubt space missions are a complex proposition but it is only in such situations that