back to article Space Shuttle Columbia disaster remembered 10 years on

On February 1st, 2003 at 08:00 CST residents of Texas witnessed the once mighty Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrate into a 12,000mph fireball. Almost 17 years to the day since the Challenger disaster, President G. W. Bush delivered the news to the world, “The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.” Space Shuttle Columbia …


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  1. Seanmon
    Thumb Up

    Nice one

    I genuinely teared up a bit when Columbia was lost. I remember staying up late to watch the first launch on TV with my Gran, then in her 60s and as fascinated with space flight as any 8 year old boy. RIP Columbia ,never forgotten.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Nice one

      RIP Columbia and Challenger.

      At least one of these tragedies could have been averted if it wasn't for the pig-headed attitude of the NASA top brass.

      These people should have been hung out to dry, instead they have been covered for again and again.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Re: Nice one

        Bean-counting that cost lives - I don't know how the bastards live with themselves.

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: Nice one

          I don't know why they weren't summarily dismissed.

      2. FrankAlphaXII Silver badge

        Re: Nice one

        As a resident of a place that NASA's incompetence and desire to race to the bottom has fucked up beyond all recognition (at least we still have the beach, Knight's Armament Corp, Space X, the United Launch Alliance and Ron Jon), I wholeheartedly agree with you on the people being hung out to dry part. If the Armed Forces ran the program, like in other countries, at least five people would have been fired and possibly criminally prosecuted unless they felt like blaming the dead, which is pretty hard in this case.

        And honestly, both of these accidents could have been avoided.

        Challenger only launched that day in January because Ronnie Raygun's State of the Union address was the supposed to be the same damned day and he was going to harp about SDI, the Space Station, and the Civilian Space Program. That's the only reason. It had nothing to do with anything but Politics because NASA wanted more money and on a part of the Reagan administration's obsession with making the Soviets look inferior. The Air Force told NASA they had never launched during a freeze (yes, if you don't know, it freezes in Florida rarely. That year, 1986, set records for the cold, seriously screwed up both the Fern and Citrus industries. It had been 18 degrees F that morning, the O-Rings were only tested to 40, at the time of launch according to NWS Melbourne located about 12 miles away it was 29 degrees at the time of the launch near noon) and didnt know if there would be any effects, and the manufacturer for the booster rockets warned them as well, as did the engineers at the prime contractor Rockwell International. NASA refused to listen like usual.

        Columbia happened because of people who did know better willingly refusing to check the wing when they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was damaged, and refusing on a cost analytical basis. It wouldnt have cost as much to retask an NRO Electro-Optical satellite for a couple of hours to have a look. But again, idiocy cost lives and much more money.

        Fail, because losing two ships in a fleet of five really isnt a good record.

  2. graeme leggett

    Most telling failure of the system, IMHO

    Failure to include ALL the relevant data from the tile impact tests.

  3. hugo tyson

    Article typo - 12-18 *inches*

    "chunk of foam [...] 21-27in long and 12-18ft wide" ITYM 12-18 inches wide; "suitcase sized" is a common description.

    That aside, good article, I wept too at the time, because of what it meant for spaceflight. ;-(

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Article typo - 12-18 *inches*

      Thanks - it's fixed.


    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Article typo - 12-18 *inches*

      Also described by some engineers as "the size and density of a large fluffy pillow"

  4. MrXavia

    So they knew there might be a problem, decided checking for damage was not 'cost effective' and let them die... An avoidable tragedy..

    RIP Crew of the Columbia.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      An avoidable tragedy

      That was one of the opinions/rumours/conspiracies going around at the time, after management vetoed imaging it with spy satelites or a space walk.

      If they (and the public) knew there was damage there would have to be a rescue mission.

      The orbiter couldn't reach the ISS and getting the second shuttle ready in time and a rescue was tricky.

      So they didn't want the bad publicity of having a crew in space that were definitely going to die - on national television. It would have been the end of manned space flight, or at least their careers.

      1. Steve Crook

        Re: An avoidable tragedy

        It always seemed to me that the risks were acceptable. The 'nauts knew what they were getting into and were brave enough to decide it was worth it anyway. I was sorry for them and their families when they died, but I thought there was far too much fuss made. I'm aware that there were faults in the way NASA operated and they directly caused the deaths of the 'nauts, but NASA needed to fix the problems and we needed to move on.

        Regardless of the rights and wrongs of colonisation, how many lives were lost in building the US through failed expeditions, sunk ships, disease and the rest? Many thousands undoubtedly, but people still went because the rewards were high enough. If we're going to go out into the solar system and do stuff, lives will be lost, probably hundred or thousands if we get serious about it. But there will always be volunteers because for some people the rewards will always outweigh the risks.

        If they were looking for old farts to go on a Mars mission today and there was only a 1 in 10 chance of a safe return, I'd accept an offer of a place. Obviously I'd be expecting at least get to Mars, but I'd take the chance of not even making it into orbit and I wouldn't expect a memorial...

        1. jackofshadows Silver badge
          Thumb Up

          Re: An avoidable tragedy

          I totally agree to a mission to Mars even with a zero chance of coming back. I still loathe the "bean-counters" that make these kind of decisions. Ask any of the people in the program, especially the ex-military, to undertake an extremely risky rescue mission and they'd almost certainly say "Hell yes." That's what we do when a mate is in trouble. Always. Still, the mission is worth the cost and I'd cheerfully pay it as well.

  5. The FunkeyGibbon
    Thumb Up

    Has it really been that long?

    Man, I'm getting old. I remember my school writing letters of condolence to Regan when Challenger exploded too.

    Brave people pushing the human race forward - their efforts should never be forgotten and their memory should not be disgraced by never trying again.

  6. ravenviz Silver badge


    People say the world has gone HSE mad but you will never know if it works as you will not have that 'life changing event'. Let it slide then the risk is realised and everyone says, told you so.

    Risk analysis also needs realistic risk mitigation.

    1. TheOtherHobbes

      Re: HSE

      New Scientist ran a news piece about Shuttle risk assessment some years before either Challenger or Columbia.

      The estimate was that two Shuttles would be lost over the duration of the program.

      Also, I used to know one of the ISS designers (or a designer of an earlier version of it.) She said about the Shuttle - 'You'll never get me in that thing. I've seen the plans.'

      So on balance the program maybe did slightly better than expected, considering it could have done a lot worse and stayed within the error bars on the risk probabilities.

      The sad thing is the Shuttle was always a beautiful kludge. There were better solutions that would have produced the same benefits for lower cost and less risk.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        Re: HSE

        "The estimate was that two Shuttles would be lost over the duration of the program."

        No. The assessment by the The Aerospace Corp was that 3 would be destroyed by the end of the programme.

        Slightly better than expected.

        But 1 in 67 is nowhere near the 1 in 1000s some NASA types were claiming when it was being started up.

      2. Annihilator

        Re: HSE

        Also, I used to know one of the ISS designers (or a designer of an earlier version of it.) She said about the Shuttle - 'You'll never get me in that thing. I've seen the plans.'

        There's clearly risk in spaceflight, astronauts know and accept this. As an example, it's a relatively little known fact that the Space Shuttle had a self-destruct mechanism (utilised in the Challenger disaster) controlled by the Range Safety Officer.

        What astronauts probably don't expect and expect though, is that the risks are really poorly managed in the case of both shuttle disasters.

        1. Brian Morrison

          Re: HSE

          The Range Safety system is essential for a vehicle with Solid Rocket Boosters, as otherwise these cannot be shut down once lit before burn-out. Shaped-charge explosives are used to split the casing and snuff out the flame front in the fuel segments.

          A similar thing happens in the external tank, on opposite sides to try to avoid fuel/oxidiser mixing, if it is jettisoned while still containing significant amounts of propellants, but in the Challenger case it had already disintegrated after the initial explosion caused when the SRB ruptured the LOX tank.

          1. Annihilator

            Re: HSE

            I know why RSOs exist, was merely pointing out their existance to demonstrate an accepted risk of the entire stack going wrong, which astronauts are aware of.

  7. Steve I
    Thumb Down

    The crew mustz have had several minutes warning - must have been terrifying as they would have known the only possibel outcome.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Not much different from an normal airliner event.

    2. Graham Dawson

      Given the speeds involved it's unlikely they even felt it.

    3. Annihilator

      It's thought that at most they would have had 30 seconds of knowledge, when the main hydraulics failed, probably even less. Events up until that point had been nominal. The decompression event that followed loss of hydraulics would have lead to loss of consciousness pretty much instantly.

      Unlike the Challenger disaster where it's thought the crew survived until impact, 2 minutes 45 seconds later.

      1. Alex Brett

        As I understand it they were wearing pressure suits, so they would presumably have survived the decompression of the cabin at least for a short period?

        1. MondoMan


          Not sure if they were required to have their helmets on, but IIRC at least some of their personal emergency oxygen systems had been (manually) activated. I also seem to remember some recorded personal message fragments being recovered (and never released to the public), but that might have been from Challenger.

    4. Tom 13

      Re: several minutes warning

      Given the temps involved, I don't know that it would have been even that long in real time, but I'm quite sure it felt like hours in perceived time.

      It was a truly sad day.

  8. The Axe


    And the scientists and managers and engineers all (except one) relied on models to prove that their actions were OK. All their trust was in the model. But had anyone checked the models? Nope. Anyone think of a similar case with models not matching up with reality? Climate change is a clue.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Models

      Space Shuttle Challenger.

      1. lord_farquaad

        Re: Models

        No, in the case of Challenger, models were proving this was below tolerated temperatures ...

        Challenger should never have been allowed to take off

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  9. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    You are having a bad problem and are not coming back from space today

    Nice write-up.

    I remember talking heads rumormongering the rumor that it might have been a hit by Al Qaeda (by on-ground sabotage or presumably hypersonic SAM). Pretty ridiculous stuff.

    Didn't Dubya pretty much immediately after EPIC FAIL announce the MANNED TRIP TO MARS which sank unobserved into the gutter in less than a month?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "those who were in the know"

    "refusal to acknowledge the present danger highlighted by those who were in the know."

    Where are these disgraceful people employed now? Do they have clear consciences? Do they even have names (decisions like these are NOT made by nameless faceless people)?

    The crew, and indeed the honourable engineers, deserved much better. RIP.

    1. Rainer
      Thumb Up

      Re: "those who were in the know"

      I think I read an article on slashdot that mentioned that all the people in charge for shooting down the engineers who saw the accident coming had either left NASA or had been transferred to other departments.

      It was simply to big a scandal to just bury it in a committee.

    2. C-N

      Re: "those who were in the know"

      "Where are these disgraceful people employed now? Do they have clear consciences? Do they even have names (decisions like these are NOT made by nameless faceless people)?"

      I don't know about all of them, but this one is "available for speaking engagements."

      1. ravenviz Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: "those who were in the know"

        @C-N, great blog post, thanks for the link.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "those who were in the know"

      Presumably anybody qualified to work on the project knew the shuttle was a masterpiece of bad design made more dangerous by bad operating practices? The big difference from the Apollo project is that rather than setting engineers and scientists a challenge and putting in the resources to get the job done, miltary and political considerations were allowed to overrule sound judgement.

      It's the contrast between the thinking of the 'high' Cold War of the fifties and sixties, and the hysteria of the Reagan era when the USSR was a spent force.

  11. AdamT

    The rescue options?

    I have to say, getting another crew to go up in another shuttle which you now know to be at risk of the same failure would be a pretty tough ask. Although given the military background of a lot of the astronauts I suspect there would be a "we don't leave anyone behind" attitude. But imagine having to make that call: "leave them up there or attempt an incredibly dangerous sideways reentry? Or send up even more people who could end up needing rescuing too?"

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: The rescue options?

      Given the character of the people who go for astronaut training, I honestly doubt they'd have been short of volunteers for a rescue flight. Wouldn't have needed a full 7-man crew, maybe 2-3 at most? Brave guys. Mad, but brave.

    2. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Re: The rescue options?

      But a rescue in space would have been one of humanity's greatest achievements; something comparable with Dunkirk that could be celebrated down the ages. Even a failure would have remained a monument to human courage. (And if the crew had known they were attempting a risky re-entry they could have said their goodbyes and set their affairs in order.) Instead we have a monument to the true cost of bean counting.

      Suddenly, I want the tombstone icon back.

    3. Bod

      Re: The rescue options?

      "No one left behind" may have met with, $450million cost for a rescue launch (based on the average cost of a launch apparently).

      yeah, what value do you put on a life, but still I'm sure some very high up would privately argued that it's too high a cost and just knock it up to the risk they have to take.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: The rescue options?

        Yes but on that basis you wouldn't be using $2.2Bn/aircraft stealth fighters against shepherds in Afghanistan while you have kids in your own country dieing of third world disease because they can't afford vaccination.

      2. Rampant Spaniel

        Re: The rescue options?

        Sad but true. Personally I believe, given the risks they take, if a rescue had been possible (and if it was the best option to get them home safely) then it needed to happen. No arguments about cost, just a simple is it the best way if so do it.

        Keeping them alive in orbit would be a matter of keeping them warm, watered, CO2 scrubbed and O2 levels acceptable. There has to be a contingency plan for shuttles to stay up longer due to bad weather so they could have managed to hold on until help arrived.

        As for refusing access to ground telescopes and 'spy sats' on cost grounds, thats truly insane. What kind of souless beancounter would make that decision? Sure retasking a sat isn't easy nor is access cheap, but it isn't about money it is about responsibility. NASA were responsible for their safety, there shouldn't be any bean counting going on.

        1. Tom 13

          Re: Sure retasking a sat isn't easy nor is access cheap

          My recollection from the time is that the spooks had OFFERED the look see, which is what always pissed me off most about it.

          1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Re: Sure retasking a sat isn't easy nor is access cheap

            The book (IIRC) about the incident - claimed that some engineers who had also worked on spy sats suggested they call their friends and have one take a look, but they weren't authorised to request it and the managers who were authorised weren't cleared to know about the sats.

            But the suggestion in the book was that the managers were using this as a deniable get-out = We didn't know about the spy sat capability because we weren't cleared.

      3. Marcelo Rodrigues

        Re: The rescue options?

        Going the cynical way, and don't considering the value of "life", I'd say it would still be cheaper.

        450 million to rescue all 7 of them.

        How much does it cost to train an astronaut? How much is invested, in terms of flights, training, and all? I doubt very much that less than 100 million each.

        They are (were) all military pilots, aren't they? Yes, we have some part of the crew that isn't - but at least pilot, co-pilot and one more, isn't it?

        And it is quite expensive to fly jets and drop (training) bombs, even before taking in account the astronaut training.

        1. ravenviz Silver badge

          Re: The rescue options?

          I never like to make financial comparisons between different arenas, but $450M to rescue 7 people doesn't compare well to spending the money on benefit projects. We say you can't put a price on life but we do it all the time, i.e. decide to let people die because it's too expensive to justify otherwise. Oxfam's website says £25/month would pay a teacher's salary, equivalent to 30,000 of those teachers for 50 years.

          1. ravenviz Silver badge

            Re: The rescue options?

            Actually, remember to convert £ to $ but the principle is the same!

      4. Alan Brown Silver badge
        Thumb Down

        Re: The rescue options?

        $450 million was the launch. It was a couple of billion to refurb the shuttles after each flight. This swung on the side of making disposables a lot cheaper - but NASA had no man-rated gear to go on a disposable stack.

        One of the more fanciful "rescue" options for shuttle involved siwnging a bar out the side hatch and firing astronauts out the door at about 100-150,000 feet but it was acknowledged as more "wishful thinking" than practical - and in any case could not be used until after the reentry stage.

        Other rescue options proposed as far back as dyna-soar days involved inflatable bubbles that astronauts would ride in on over a 2-3 day period (with utterly no control over where they ended up)

        Even though it was a horrible kludge from the outset, what really killed Shuttle was the stark reality that disposable rockets are cheaper - paying the russians to use their man-rated kit was a lot cheaper - and a disposable stack cable of sending a shuttle-mass payload (vs a shuttle payload bay sized payload) would have built ISS in a lot less time.

        Of course if they hadn't spent 20 years fartarsing about trying to do flights which justified using a machine designed from the outset to be a pickup truck hauling - and far more importantly returning - space station components, then there might have been a ISS a lot earlier.

        The russians built Buran to prove they could, from publically available documentation for the shuttle.

        The designers realised it was incredibly dangerous as-is and wanted to move the orbiter to the top of the stack, but they were told to leave it as it was so it could be flown in minimum time - but that configuration would never have been man-rated under russian flight rules and was one of the reasons Buran only flew once (Buran's undercarriage could be deployed under computer control. The Shuttle's had to be manually deployed (non-retractable) and that's why it could never fly unmanned)

        (The russians were similarly shocked at how dangerous the apollo LEM units were. After losing several people early on they were acutely aware of the level of bad publicity they'd get if they lost anyone on a lunar sortie.)


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