Could it have been averted? In this essay today, we will look at the mishap from the perspective of Risk Management and try to critically analyze the causes, and lessons learnt from the tragedy.
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 ...
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