10 years after Columbia disaster, reflections on lessons learned, remaining risks
Space shuttle Columbia and its 7-member crew lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 16, 2003. The mission would be the shuttle's last as the orbiter disintegrated upon re-entry 16 days later killing all aboard on Feb. 1, 2003. (Red Huber, Orlando Sentinel / January 16, 2003)
One of them, dubbed "Remember," was a photo of the shuttle on its launchpad, nearly enveloped by low clouds, and a quote from Walt Williams, an early NASA manager: "You will never remember the many times the launch slipped, but the on-time failures are with you always."
The posters hung until just a few months ago when Hale — now retired and a consultant to several commercial rocket companies — retrieved them after they were taken down.
He wonders what replaced them — and what that says about NASA a decade after Columbia.
"You talk about memory [of the accident] fading, and you have to wonder what are they [NASA leaders] are thinking," Hale said.
According to NASA, pictures of the space station now adorn the walls.
Adm. Hal Gehman, investigator
When NASA flew its last shuttle mission in July 2011, the occasion was marked with reverence and even regret by some. But to retired Navy Adm. Hal Gehman, who led the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the safe landing of Atlantis brought a sigh of relief.
"The more I think about it, the happier I am that we retired the shuttle program," said Gehman. "We would have gotten away with 30 or 40 [more] launches, and then we would have had another accident. The system was too dangerous."
The dangers were detailed in his board's 248-page report: from the lack of an effective escape system to constant pressure to launch despite shrinking NASA resources. Another factor: the mistaken belief the shuttle was "operational" — like an airliner — rather than a test vehicle that required constant vigilance.
Gehman said the board's recommendation that NASA "recertify" the shuttle before flying it beyond 2010 was — in essence — a call to mothball the shuttle as the cost of recertifying a vehicle with 2.5 million parts was prohibitively expensive.
"We knew we were effectively shutting down the program," he said. But "we were never going to get to the next [era] of human spaceflight until we shut it down."
Though NASA's next vehicle configuration, the Space Launch System and Orion capsule, is being designed to include an abort system, Gehman said it's still vulnerable to the same pressures of time and money that doomed Columbia:
"I can tell you that the pressures that caused bad engineering practices in the past … are still there."
Mike Ciannilli, searcher
A few weeks after the Columbia accident, Mike Ciannilli found himself in a barren field in east Texas, looking at a space shuttle tile he didn't understand.
Part of a debris-recovery effort that involved an estimated 25,000 people and spanned more than 2.3 million acres, mostly in Texas and Louisiana, Ciannilli's job included sitting in the back of a helicopter — doors off — scanning for tiny glints of light that could be pieces of the orbiter.
On that day, his team had found an unusual tile. Most shuttle tiles have burn marks on the exterior, the effect of shielding the orbiter from the searing heat of re-entry. This one had burn marks on its interior surface.
"It was kind of confusing," said Ciannilli, then an engineer for United Space Alliance. "When you see a tile with that degradation on the inside, it poses more questions."
His tile, along with 84,000 other pieces of recovered debris, ultimately led investigators to conclude that a hole in Columbia's left wing allowed superheated air to breach its defenses and melt the wing's interior.
Now Ciannilli is with NASA, overseeing Columbia debris preservation.
He said the debris storeroom, located in the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC, has become a shrine where NASA employees go to remember the Columbia crew and remind themselves to never forget its safety lessons.
Even now, a decade later, an occasional piece of debris is found and sent to KSC.
"Our goal," said Ciannilli, now 45, "is to bring every piece of Columbia home."
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