There are so many aspects of the recovery and reconstruction of Columbia to discuss no one book could possibly tell them all. And this observation is just from my perspective—one person out of the many, many people who contributed one way or the other to the overall effort. Other accounts would add many more personal stories and technical information. There are at least a dozen books on the accident from varying perspectives. One thing we all agree on is that the response of NASA to the loss of Columbia and her crew was vastly different from the loss of Challenger and her crew.
What are the factors that made this true? What evidence is there supporting it? And, most significantly, why is important? Briefly recalling the two accidents begins to tell the story.
Challenger was lost January 28, 1986. It was the 25th Shuttle flight, not yet five years into the program designed to be America’s single launch system. (Recall that at the time, NASA needed to fly as many commercial and military payloads as possible to cost-justify the shuttle.) Although the public was already starting to tune out the Shuttle program, this was a high-profile mission, with “Teacher in Space” Christa McAuliffe on board. The explosion was seen in person and on TV by millions of people. It was horrific. Most of us will never forget the images of the expanding plume of vapor, the solid rocket boosters careening out of control, and then the innumerable vapor trails of objects plummeting from the vapor cloud into the ocean.
Columbia was lost February 1, 2003. It was the 113th shuttle mission, and NASA had been flying space shuttles for more than twenty years. Most Americans probably didn’t even know the mission was being flown. People were blasé about the program and this purely research mission. If you hadn’t gotten up early on that Saturday morning in Dallas or along the debris path in sparsely-populated East Texas, all you saw later that day was a few videos of some trails in the sky. That accident was equally horrific as Challenger‘s. Just as many astronauts died. But precious few people outside of NASA or Texas remember the accident at all. (As crazy as it sounds, there aren’t even any public domain, NASA-taken photographs of the accident itself, since it happened far from the nearest NASA facility.)
The responses to the two by NASA leadership were as different as the missions themselves. The reason is most often described as “the mood of the agency was different.” In 1986 NASA wanted to move on after Challenger, put the accident behind us— writing it off as a one time horrible event—and get back to flying the Shuttle. In 2003 we knew very early after the loss it would probably end the program, but we still wanted to “find the cause, fix it, and fly again.” (We were bound by international treaty to finish the International Space Station.) But we also wanted to learn from the loss.
That’s the most significant difference between Columbia and Challenger. Learn from it. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen.
So much could be said about how this was manifested, but none of it could have happened without the strong leadership of Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s Administrator in 2003. His treatment of the loss, the crew families, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, and the ‘NASA family’ was nothing short of inspirational. It was exactly what we all needed.
The evidence of his leadership is easy to see. Columbia is preserved and used in research into the effects of hypersonic re-entry on materials and structures. It is available for study by any organization with appropriate research goals. It is stored in the VAB. It is also used to educate NASA and contractor employees about the risks of spaceflight and the need for everyone to be vigilant in doing their job the best they can at all times.
By comparison, Challenger is buried in an abandoned Minuteman missile silo at launch complex 31/32 on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The debris fills the deep silo and the side rooms and is sealed with a concrete cap. It is locked away, only accessible in the most extreme cases (once for a Shuttle study on an issue with fuel system flowliner cracks). Not even a sign or marker exists to commemorate it.
This one example of the comparison of the response to the two is easy. To fully describe how it was so completely different would take another book on the organizational, political, and social influences existing at the two times.
And I’m certainly not the right person to do that or one to point fingers at the Challenger leaders and their decisions. But I am one to celebrate the response NASA had to Columbia. It was the right thing to do, lead by the right person to do it.
In later blog entries, we’ll dive deeper into the decision to preserve Columbia and the benefits that have already accrued from that decision.