The Hard-Learned Lessons Of The Columbia Disaster

On February 1st, 2003 at eighteen seconds past 9:00 AM Eastern Standard Time, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during atmospheric entry over Texas. Still traveling at approximately Mach 18.3, the disintegration of Columbia was complete and nearly instantaneous. According to the official accident investigation, the crew had at most one minute from realizing they were in a desperate situation to complete destruction of the spacecraft. Due to the design of the Space Shuttle, no contingency plan or emergency procedure could have saved the crew at this point in the mission: all seven crew members were lost in this tragedy.

While the Space Shuttle, officially known as the Space Transportation System (STS) would fly again after the Columbia disaster, even the program’s most ardent supporters had to admit fundamental design of the Shuttle was flawed. Steps needed to be taken to ensure no future astronauts would be lost, and ultimately, the decision was made to retire the Shuttle fleet after primary construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was complete. There was simply too much invested in the ISS at this point to cancel the only spacecraft capable of helping to assemble it, so the STS had to continue despite the crushing loss of human life it had already incurred.

Between the loss of Challenger and Columbia, the STS program claimed fourteen lives in its thirty year run. Having only flown 135 missions in that time, the STS is far and away the most deadly spacecraft to ever fly. A grim record that, with any luck, is never to be broken.

The real tragedy was, like Challenger, the loss of Columbia could have been prevented. Ground Control knew that the Shuttle had sustained damage during launch, but no procedures were in place to investigate or repair damage to the spacecraft while in orbit. Changes to the standard Shuttle mission profile gave future crews a chance of survival that the men and women aboard Columbia never had.

Determining Risk

During Columbia’s climb to space, a piece of insulating foam came off of the external tank and struck the wing. The impact was observed by Ground Control, but as there was no way to tell how large and heavy the piece of foam was, or what damage it actually caused, the decision was made to continue with the mission as normal. During reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, this damaged section of wing allowed hot gasses to enter the vehicle: ultimately leading to a structural failure.

Rendering of the Space Shuttle performing a self-scan with the laser depth camera. Credit: NASA

It’s impossible to say if knowing the full extent of the damage to Columbia’s wing would have saved the crew. There was still no formal procedure for a Shuttle rescue mission in the event reentry was deemed to risky, and post-incident reports on the event came to the conclusion that putting a rescue mission together on such short notice would have been pushing the very limits of plausibility.

Accordingly, one of the first tasks scheduled for every Shuttle crew to fly after the loss of Columbia was to conduct a thorough examination of the vehicle’s heat shield, paying close attention to the nose cone and leading edges of the wings. This was conducted using sensors mounted to the vehicle’s robotic arm, including a laser depth camera and high resolution cameras. Taking between 5 and 7 hours to complete, these examinations represented a significant loss of productivity for a vehicle that was already extremely expensive to launch and operate. But the fragility of the heat shield left NASA no alternative.

Station As A Safe Haven

Shuttle docked with ISS in 2011.

With the exception of the mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, every Shuttle that flew after the loss of Columbia went directly to the ISS. Gone were the days where the Shuttle flew off on its own to conduct independent research and experiments; it was now firmly a vehicle to take crew and cargo to the ISS and bring them back home. This was a task which the Shuttle was vastly overqualified for, and which is now accomplished with much more simplistic spacecraft at a fraction of the cost.

The reasoning behind always flying to the ISS was simple: if damage to the heat shield was found during the examination, the crew would be able to stay docked to the Station for far longer than the Shuttle itself could have remained aloft. In addition, further examinations of the heat shield would be possible from the Station, allowing Ground Control to better assess the situation.

In the absolute worst case, the Shuttle being too badly damaged to return them to Earth, crew members could then return home via one of the Russian Soyuz capsules which remain docked to the Station at all times.

In Space Repairs

In the event damage to the Shuttle’s heat shield was found, the astronauts needed a way to conduct repairs. A procedure was developed in which a thick gel, described as having the consistency of peanut butter, could be shot into damaged thermal tiles with a device not unlike a caulk gun by an astronaut on an Extravehicular Activity (EVA, or “spacewalk”). Once shot into the damaged area, it would then be smoothed out with a spatula so it was flush with the rest of the heat shield. This operation was no small feat when in a bulky EVA suit, but was tested successfully by astronauts inside the cargo bay of the Shuttle.

In 2005, astronaut Steve Robinson became the first person to ever attempt a repair on the Shuttle’s heat shield. In fact, he was the first astronaut to ever even approach the belly of the Shuttle while in space. As the bottom of the Shuttle is completely smooth, he had to be maneuvered into place at the end of a robotic arm, and carried the absolute minimum amount of tools and equipment to lower the chances of anything floating loose and hitting the spacecraft.

Sending the Shuttle Home Alone

In the event the Shuttle could not be repaired to the satisfaction of Ground Control, the crew could either return to Earth via Soyuz capsule or on a second Shuttle launched to come get them. But what would happen to the damaged Shuttle? At a cost of approximately $2B each, they aren’t the kind of thing you want to just cut loose and let float away. Even if reentry was deemed too dangerous to do with humans aboard, sending it down autonomously was at least worth a shot. The only problem was that the Shuttle, unlike its Soviet-made counterpart, couldn’t actually land without somebody to flip the switches in the cockpit.

RCO Cable installed in Flight Deck. Credit: NASA

Certain tasks like lowering the landing gear or deploying the drogue chute to slow the Shuttle after touchdown could only be performed from the physical controls on the Flight Deck, but the Shuttle’s avionics are located on the Mid Deck. To fix this, NASA engineers created the Remote Control Orbiter Cable (RCO Cable), a 28 foot long wiring harness that would connect the Shuttle’s computers to the controls on the Flight Deck.

To install it, the astronauts would open up panels in the Shuttle’s cockpit, and attach the connectors of the RCO Cable in place of the original switches and buttons. The cable was then run down the hatch to the Mid Deck, and then forward to the avionic bays in the nose. Once the controls on the Flight Deck were physically linked with the computer, the astronauts could depart the Shuttle and Ground Control would be able to remotely command its return. The Shuttle would follow a modified flight path towards Edwards Air Force Base to lessen the chances of possible debris coming down over populated areas, but otherwise the landing would proceed as normal.

The Post-Shuttle Era

The STS program officially ended in 2011. The remaining vehicles in the Shuttle fleet: Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, are now on a permanent “Mission of Inspiration” in museums across the United States. But the lessons learned during the STS program continue to shape manned spacecraft in the era of commercial spaceflight.

All current and purposed spacecraft designs have returned to a more traditional arrangement with the crew vehicle riding atop the booster rocket; the risk of debris damaging a side-mounted vehicle are simply unacceptable. NASA’s safety requirements for the Commercial Crew Program include things like enhanced thermal protection systems and extended abort windows, with an end goal of lowering the odds of losing a crew member to 1-in-270 (down from 1-in-90 with the Shuttle).

The SpaceX Dragon 2 spacecraft is a front-runner in the Commercial Crew Program, and offers many safety features designed to meet or exceed NASA requirements. It has abort capability from the launch pad all the way to orbit, can be remotely operated in case of an incapacitated crew, and has a heat shield so over-built that it can survive multiple reentries before needing replacement.

Spaceflight will never be safe. Nature abhors a vacuum, and as such, crew members aboard a spacecraft will always be putting themselves in a situation where only a mistake or two separates them from death. But with the hard-learned lessons of the Space Transportation System, we’ve identified some of those mistakes and can do everything in our power to ensure they aren’t made again.

136 thoughts on “The Hard-Learned Lessons Of The Columbia Disaster

  1. The loss of both Columbia and Challenger were very sad events. While I was unhappy to see the shuttle mothballed, I understand the reasons why it was necessary.
    Sadly, there will likely never be another space vehicle as capable as the space shuttle was, at least not in the near future.

    1. not to diminish the space shuttle…scratch that, i’m diminishing the space shuttle: it’s really not that capable a vehicle. it can’t leave LEO, and combining heavy lift with crew carriage means it’s not really great at either. it seems amazing that it was so general purpose – being able to change orbit in mid-mission, for example – but that’s actually a really trivial and light-weight feature to add to anything already in orbit. the end of the shuttle era marks the end of using a crewed vehicle to perform tasks best performed by robots, no more no less.

      i certainly fell in love with the shuttle but in hindsight it doesn’t really make any sense. if you need to have a full-featured heavy crew habitat in orbit (like for repair missions), there’s no argument for subjecting it to re-entry.

      there’s this separate problem that nasa’s budget and purpose are both big unknowns since the end of the shuttle…

      1. This maybe one of the most ignorant assessments I have ever read, thank you for that.
        The space shuttle is one of the most advanced systems ever developed. It truly should be listed as one of the 7 modern wonders of the world. Without it, there is no ISS. Without it, space science and missions are set back decades. Without it, many satellites and vehicles would be impossible to launch. Without it, we wouldn’t have known what we need in the future and what technology we lacked to get there.

        The name of the game is multi-purpose reusable space vehicles. It’s what will be required for any living habitat on any planet or the moon.

          1. More uniquely qualified than say an apollo or soyuz capsule?
            The CanadaArm is cool but for all of that servicing you could have shot another up into orbit, the Hubble is just additional purchase of KH-11 spy satellites with a few mods if I recall correctly, fire another into orbit like they do the spy sats.
            It was a radical hack to please the imagination of our Nazi Von Braun.
            Someday we will have reusable spacecraft but in hindsight this hinky kludge side stacking bullshit based on 60s tech is why both crews died.
            If it were a vertical stack and a little Hermies size shuttle for people with an escape tower to pull away and the STS for trucking cargo at least human lives would not be at stake. Though at that rate isn’t a Saturn V with a dry 3rd stage able to schlep more and cheaper considering that the Orbiter had to be rebuilt after every flight. And that 3rd and 2nd wet stage could stay up as monster space station modules.

          1. Every part of the Shuttle needs to be re-inspected before the next mission too. So even though parts can be reused, it is not at all cheaper because the labor and equipment needed to inspect and re-validate everything is expensive.

          2. “Saturn V’s are also more expensive to operate, due to the simple fact that no part of it (besides the crew) is reusable.”

            To be fair, more crew were reuseable with Saturn V than they were with the shuttle.

        1. “Without it, many satellites and vehicles would be impossible to launch.” pshaw. I meant what I said, combining crew carriage and heavy lift makes a vehicle that is not good at heavy lift. Not only were shuttle missions exorbitantly expensive themselves, but carrying anything up on the shuttle means complying with any expensive standard NASA chooses to throw at you, because they don’t want to endanger their ship.

          I think maybe you assume that if the shuttle hadn’t existed, there just would have been nothing. Politics is real, it is important, and maybe the shuttle was the only thing that was politically plausible. Kind of a hard “what if” 50 years later. But technologically, if the same money had been put into separate crew and heavy-lift capabilities, I mean, can you imagine?

          I remember in the late 90s/early 00s, NASA’s slogan became some variant on “better cheaper faster”, and as part of that they had a slew of unmanned non-shuttle missions. I was sad to see it forced on them by budget but the space science accomplished by these relatively inexpensive missions is far greater than any shuttle program except Hubble. And many of Hubble’s costs and delays are attributable to the shuttle program — the shuttle gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

    2. “Sadly, there will likely never be another space vehicle as capable as the space shuttle was”

      No. The space shuttle was a failure. It was never intended to take humanity even as far as the programs that proceeded. it. The one thing it was supposed to make access to space less expensive. It did not. The space shuttle was more expensive.

      As for capability.. the space shuttle could never travel beyond low earth orbit. Apollo went to the moon! Plans existed to take Apollo to Venus. Even the Gemini program included a plan to continue to the moon although it was never on any kind of schedule to do so.

      The space shuttle is the reason why no one has left the planet in over 40 years. Do you doubt this claim? Consider that even Hubble and the ISS orbit within the Earth’s thermosphere. We have not been a spacefaring species since the Apollo program’s end.

      Fortunately it appears that the shuttle’s replacements if they get enough funding to ever really leave the drawing board will be MORE not less capable than the shuttle. The shuttle only looked capable because a part of it seemed to land like an airplane thus it seemed to bring space travel into something that more closely resembled our every day lives. I say seemed to because as an airplane it kind of sucked. It just isn’t practical to make something that fills all the requirements of being a good space craft and a good aircraft. It’s similar to the difficulties in making a good flying car. It’s just too hard to specialize in both uses. Don’t take my word for that. Do you know what the astronauts said about it? They said it was like trying to land a flying brick!

      While the loss of the people aboard Challenger and Columbia was tragic I will shed no tears for the shuttle program which robbed two generations of our aspirations to extend humanity into space and only replaced them with aspirations to fly a brick!

      1. The option which really hosed the STS was forcing the design to include it to go for polar orbit from Vandenberg, snag a Soviet satellite, and land with it in the Israeli southern desert before it passed over the USSR.

        1. Yup. Then again, the only reason that was part of STS was because Congress wouldn’t fund it directly as a NASA project only, so they went in with DOD. So really, the thing that killed the Shuttle is the same thing that kills Kickstarter campaigns: overpromising to get funding.

      2. All modern jets are are flying bricks. Most just prove the old adage that you can make a pig fly if strap a rocket to it. Most aerodynamically unstable as hell and without a computerized flight control system making adjustments they crash.

        That said the shuttle was a failure but we had no follow on to it’s role and still don’t. In the late 80’s Lockheed and Boeing tried and failed badly. Their engineers were too just too incompetent. And there doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon.

        So we’re back to technology developed back in the 1960’s.

        Funny isn’t it. How we’re back where we started.

        1. “So we’re back to technology developed back in the 1960’s.”

          So, the 3D carbon fibre loom that has built pieces for the Orion was developed back in the 1960’s?
          Maybe it will have ferrite core memory in its computers too?

        2. “All modern jets are are flying bricks”
          No, simply just…No.
          So naturally unstable that they cannot fly without active stabilisation – yes.
          However, the orbiter’s vertical speed for most of the descent is more then freefall for a human, only at the end of the “glide” slope does it exchange a lot of the kinetic energy for bringing the vertical speed to something more reasonable. The term flying brick is very accurate, because what it does is best described as a controlled fall. It’s landing speed is easily the highest of…anything that lands on a runway.
          In order for a small bizjet, that was used to simulate just how bad the orbiter’s flight characteristics are so pilots could train, it had to not not only had deploy flaps, but it also had to go into full reverse thrust.
          Jet fighters glide way better then that.

          1. One myth that keeps going is the Shuttle used lifting body technology developed with the M2-F1, M2-F2, and HL-10. Not true at all. The only thing the Shuttle got from that was the knowledge it was possible to make a fast, steep, unpowered descent with a flare at the last minute to land instead of crashing.

            The Shuttles are 1960’s prototype airliner construction technique, wrapped in a fragile heat shield and made to fly hypersonic speed. Though they look the same, each Shuttle is/was quite different as they kept coming up with ways to lighten and improve them. Columbia was significantly heavier than the others, so it never went to ISS, even if it flew with the Super LightWeight Tank (SLWT, which it never did, and which is what doomed it) the fuel expenditure to reach the inclined orbit and altitude of ISS would have prevented it from carrying much of a payload.

            Why never flying with an SLWT doomed Columbia is because once the SLWT was in production, the remaining LightWeight Tanks (LWT) were used for Columbia flights or other low orbit missions with lighter payloads. Unfortunately the LWTs had the worst foam adhesion problems. NASA knew of the problem but didn’t have the old tanks stripped and re-foamed using newer processes being used on the SLWTs.

            How else was the STS program a bit of a mess? After the Shuttle that eventually was named Enterprise was designed and approved, redesign work began and then construction started on Columbia *before* construction start of Enterprise to the original plans. Yup, they started building the first flight ready Shuttle before starting to build the aerodynamics test article.

            Had something been found wrong with the glide characteristics of Enterprise, that would have caused even more delays with having to make alterations to the partially built Columbia.

            I wonder how much validity that further ground testing of Enterprise (after the glide tests were finished) had when Columbia and her sisters were so different? Refitting Enterprise for space use was never seriously considered because it’s much heavier than Columbia. Some parts of Enterprise that were identical to “production” components were scavenged, along with spares built for Atlantis and Discovery, went into building Endeavour.

        3. “So we’re back to technology developed back in the 1960’s.”

          Ughh.. In every group there is some smart person who says some version of that. So what? Better is better no matter when it was designed. I drove to work this morning in a car with 4 wheels on it. What decade was the wheel invented in?

          “Funny isn’t it. How we’re back where we started.”
          Funny isn’t the word I would use. Worthy of celebration is more like it. For 40 years we were traveling backwards. Getting back to where we started would be a huge improvement! I wouldn’t celebrate too hard though. We should be farther along! We aren’t because we wasted two generations. Now I will likely die of old age before the things my grandparents once thought were right around the corner come to pass.

        1. Not quite. The l/d ratio isn’t that bad, not great but by no means hand tools standards..but it’s really heavy, so optimum glide airspeed is very high, so descent rate is truly eye-watering.

    3. There’s a couple of rockets with much larger payloads than the Shuttle in various stages of active development, from on the drawing board to literally on the launch pad getting ready for their first flight (the Falcon Heavy is supposed to be launched five days from now). I’m not sure if they are going to carry a vehicle that has the same level of “catch-and-repair” sort of capabilities the Shuttle had, though.

      1. It’ll be much more practical for them to carry a vehicle designed to do so as payload than it would be to send the Falcon Heavy second stage itself to do the job. But either way, if they do, you and I won’t ever hear about it.

  2. Until such a time when Man learns to get into space without the need for cryogenic fuels and large rockets these safety measures should be taken. I’m convinced that we’ll get there, but it’s not going to be a bloodless advance of technology. As long as we test the limits we will occasionally have pioneers who give their life to the advancement of human understanding.

    1. A way to get into space without cryogenic fuels? Time to restart Project Orion!

      …Safe and no large rockets, you say? Nevermind. We’ll wait until we have a space elevator or a laser launch system, but those will of course be hideously energetic and therefore hideously dangerous as well.

      I agree that it’s not going to be a bloodless advance. But nothing is bloodless. People have this unreasonable expectation that all new advances are going to be death-free, even though things like commuting to work or taking a bath incur deaths every day. It’s so silly.

      I remember reading the speech that was planned in the event that the first men on the moon died up there, or if the lunar launch proved to be impossible. It was powerful. Appropriate. Somewhat sad, but much more it was hopeful. At the risk of sounding a little too Klingon, I think that would be a marvelous way to die. Of course I’d rather survive and make it home, but anyone should consider themselves lucky to have that be the last page of their story.

      1. “Nevermind. We’ll wait until we have a space elevator or a laser la…”

        Correct me if I am wrong but dragging stuff up a space elevator slows the rotation kf the earth, untill you drag it back down. That is bound to upset observatories, seti, et al.

        Thanks for pens that write on walls and upside down. We have virtual presece ability, now. I’d love to see our more earth-local humans at least crudely housed and fed. What is it, 1 in 8 kids in the US are hungry?

        JUST SAYIN…

        1. The earth is too massive for anyone to notice anything. The bigger problem is the sideways pull on the cable caused by the coriolis forces, which makes it impossible to pull the load at any appreciable speed or it will just tear the space elevator cable off its moorings.

          You have to inch your way up the rope over the course of a month, because it works as a force amplifying system. Take a long rope, let’s say 10 meters long, and try to pull it to such a tension that you can’t deflect it by a centimeter – you can’t – because the leverage you get by pulling the rope sideways is approximately proportional to 1/x where x is your deflection from a straight rope. At zero deflection your leverage is infinite and even the smallest force will pull the rope to the side.

          As the elevator descends or ascends the rope, it has to speed up and slow down in the orbital direction, and unless it has continuously firing rockets to achieve that, it pulls the rope sideways, and therefore pulls whatever is attached to the other end of the cable down.

          1. Not to be rude… though reasonably thinking, I’ve thought this space elevator thing out and seems to me the system is really another false vision or at least the designs I’ve observed.

            Now a way where the system can be designed is think like a scaffolding with sections of hovercraft scaffold sections that their thrust vectors have to change once connected to the elevator system to align with the forces that will cause them to counter their flexing, tension, compression, torsion, etc. in sections and as a whole. This system will have to use gas pipes or electric lines in the frame itself to achieve this feat. I think this is the only realistic way. We almost need an electric system I’m thinking with a nuclear plant to power. Maybe a lot of fuel… though doesn’t seem feasible to me. A solar trough power plant may work and maybe steam for use in heating also to equillibriate the system materials for longer term stability. The tether idea is way to far off in regards to materials science and just not feasible now, if ever.

        2. We would destroy ourselves ten million other ways before we managed to deplete the earth’s rotational momentum a significant amount, or even a tiny fraction of a significant amount. That’s really not the kind of environmental destruction we need to worry about. At all.

          If the elevator snapped, though, many physics simulations show that it would basically glassify the entire equator. That much weight falling from so high is much worse than a thermonuclear weapon in terms of energy released, and it would literally wrap around the equator like a spool while it fell. It would be a monumental fuckfest, and if we built a space elevator it would, repeat WOULD, eventually fall. It would just be a matter of when. It’s actually kind of lucky that we don’t have any material with nearly enough tensile strength. People have a false sense of safety around things which aren’t nuclear or powered by toxic chemicals, but a buttload of gravitational kinetic energy will still ruin your day just as much as a buttload of nuclear or chemical energy.

    1. Agreed. The Columbia’s killer was the well known issue of foam and ice falling during launch, and even I saw it during launch going “Wait – what the hell was that?” It was large and clearly impacted the orbiter with force. NASA had talked about this issue at length in the past and simply decided it was not necessary/too much trouble to change the way things were done.

    2. Go fever was a real killer. Well, it killed a tiny handful of people, but there were lessons learned nonetheless.

      Now we’re dealing with the consequences of stop fever. People still always die, but we haven’t done anything of note in half a century as far as manned space exploration. It’s much more sad in my opinion.

      1. SO true. Even with a big tow service behind me, I carry jumpers, an extinguisher, water, and often, gas, even in the big city. To send them up w no semi-ready able rescue is less than many a seal team gets. Borders on criminal. Ok – so they had little rescue ability on the first few manned orbits. With the multiple shuttles, one should have been able to limp up within 24-48 hours. Lacking that is a No-Go, in my book. Returning “deaf and dumb,” was a bad call. 50-50 in space is not acceptable.

      2. I was sitting on a lawn in 1994 discussing go fever with a pilot friend of mine. He was of the opinion, and had been taught in flight school, that it killed more private pilots than anything else. The private aviation magazines we were reading seemed to support that point.
        Four days later he and his wife were killed in a single engine plane crash late at night during an instrument approach. Their departure had been delayed several times due to bad wx and they needed to get home to go back to work. It was late, they were tired, and had left in a hurry.

        That conversation on a sunny day will remain with me for the rest of my days.

        1. I read an article in an aviation magazine quite a while back along similar lines. His was an air ambulance, and as the weather worsened, his passengers and baggage kept increasing. The patient(s?) were not critical, so he walked away, and lived to write the article.

          While hiking up Long’s Peak in Colorado a couple of decades ago, the weather turned bad, so most of the group I was hiking with turned back. I met a more seasoned hiker on my way down. He assured me that the decision to turn back was never a wrong one. Two of my friends did not turn back that day. We had a funeral for one of them a few days later.

        1. It can be done, but not from here.
          Well, if we had a really long cable…

          Personally, I have concern about the toxic rocket exhaust gases. The days of, “The solution to pollution, is dilution,” are supposd to be over.

          1. Agree if talking solid fuels (sts boosters) but the most powerful liquid fuels release only water – hydrogen/oxygen, or water and some nitrogen oxides I believe for hydrazine/oxygen, and water and co2 for kerosene/oxygen ( falcon 9)

    1. Not sure where you’re getting your info from, or where you live, but an airliner doesn’t crash “every few months”. Loss of life in commercial air is rare: in fact in 2017 there were 0 deaths aboard commercial aircraft.

      Chances of dying on a commercial flight are something like 1 death in every 15 MILLION flights. Compare that to the 14 deaths in 135 flights, the Shuttle was nearly a death sentence.

      1. I think the majority of astronauts join knowing that there was a higher chance of death. If the space shuttle was launching tomorrow, I think that most on this forum would give their right organ that holds half of their chromosomes to get a ticket for that ride, including me! Maybe it wasn’t the “perfect” vehicle for the job. But it achieved so much in the years in service. We are a low earth orbiting species now, that has been to the moon a few times. We are so lucky to do the things that only 80 or so years ago were impossible. So lah blah boring low earth orbit/deadly spacecraft arguments are meek at best.

      2. It takes a fairly risk-averse mind to consider 4% a death sentence. If you count all the people who have flown on the shuttle (355) that is about what you get.

        Granted, we wouldn’t want to subject commercial airline passengers to a 4% death rate. But these are not commercial passengers, and it’s a bit strange to compare them. These are people pushing the limit of human capability and understanding. Humankind would be paralyzed if we considered 4% too high a risk in that field. Imagine the damage which would be done if we went back and refused to take any risk which carried a 4% chance of failure through the ages.

        1. >”It takes a fairly risk-averse mind to consider 4% a death sentence. ”

          It was a death sentence to the Space Shuttle.

          Also consider, the Shuttle was supposed to have a turnaround every two weeks, flying a mission twice a month. For that kind of service, and a 4% total failure rate, each of the shuttles would have had a fatal accident in just one year of operation!

      3. You do know how to read the word “commercial” and correctly apply it in context to air passenger transportation, do you?

        Yeah, thought not.

        Private flights: Not commercial passenger flights.
        Charter flights: Not commercial passenger flights.
        Cargo flights: Not commercial passenger flights.
        Military flights: Not commercial passenger flights.

        If you’re going to bring examples to refute the claim that “in 2017 there were 0 deaths aboard commercial aircraft”, then you actually need to bring examples including commercial aircraft, not examples of safari charter flights and cargo flights.

        It is a paradox that being a pilot of a small airplane is one of the most dangerous jobs out there, yet passenger air travel remains the safest mode of transportation known to man. Safer than trains, buses, cars, motorbikes, boats, bicycles and walking.

        Please excuse my tone. I have a bad habit of reflecting peoples’ tone back at them.

      4. Dan was talking clearly about commercial air statistics. Jay (the actual OP) didn’t even talk about airplanes at all.

        I guess that you’re referring to r4m0n’s absurd claim that, “Every few months an airplane crashes and takes hundreds of lives”, which is blatently not true. It’s not even close. Your examples don’t support that claim either.

    2. The obvious thing to compare it to would be another spacecraft.
      The Soyuz spacecraft (not to be confused with the rocket that launches it, also called Soyuz) has done 136 flights (well, launches, two are currently docked to the ISS), and in total four cosmonauts were killed in two separate accidents.
      So the shuttle has a similar accident rate, but a higher death rate due to it carrying more crew.

      1. The Soyuz is an interesting design, and it has gone though a number of generations. I wish the STS had gone though a similar process, so we would have newer designs with the old flaws designed out of them.

        In fact, had we removed the crewed option on the older ones, it would of greatly increased the weight taken to orbit. It might also allowed for automated missions to the Clark belt to remove and return old, out of service communication satellites.

        1. Why start with STS? We could have iterated from Gemini on up. The problem is that isn’t how government funding works in the US. You need to scrap a whole program and build a new one so that the administration of the day can take credit for it.

        2. Oh, yah, and those missions (automated or otherwise) to pick up dead satellites… It’s never going to be practical and it’s never going to happen.

          Here’s the problem, we look at these little maps of the earth ringed with satellite debris on our computer screens and think it looks like some sort of dense cloud of trash. One might imagine spreading out a large net and filling it with junk in a single motion. You have to remember though, planets are big. Even a circle dawn around the Earth at surface level would be about 25,000 mi or 40,000 km. Now consider that circumference increases exponentially with radius. There is a lot of space up there.

          The people who launched those satellites didn’t want their investments to collide with others. They spread them out well. There may be a lot of them but those dead satellites are still spread out over a HUGE distance. That means if you sent a rocket up to collect them it would spend a huge amount of fuel getting to the first. Then it would still require spending a huge amount of fuel just to get to the second. And again to the third! And Fourth! And finally a huge amount again to get back down. There is just no way this can be done for a cost that is worthwhile.

          The only answer is to just stop making the existing problem worse. We aren’t likely to ever make it get better. At least after some centuries many of those satellites will have fallen on their own.

        3. Narcissism by capitalist psyscho or sociopaths gas lighting criminals at their finest with not much regards for others lives… that you think would know better with their level of education… however is narrow minded and must not be that broader picture practical other than their own suicide cycle.

      2. Right. In fact, every human-carrying spacecraft seems to have a failure rate of about one in fifty, plus or minus some statistical variation. Some didn’t fly enough times to have a single failure. Apollo killed a crew on the ground, and nearly killed another on Apollo 13.

        When the sample size is so small that a single accident would change the rankings, it’s hard to unambiguously claim which vehicle is safest or most dangerous.

        The STS did kill more astronauts than any other space vehicle, but it also allowed more astronauts to safely complete their missions. The absolute number isn’t what’s important. By that measure, any commercial airliner is far more deadly than any spacecraft. The accident rate is a much more meaningful measure.

        1. The Concord was the deadliest commercial passenger aircraft in deaths per flights or miles flown, despite only having a single one of them crash. The planes had many close calls with fuel tanks punctured by debris or exploding tires, but until that last one which caught fire, they were always able to make it back or abort to another nearby airport. The Concorde was (on a per distance flown by the fleet over its lifetime) an even worse investment than the STS. All the rework done to reinforce the fuel tanks after the crash was merely a face saving process, the planes were instantly doomed when the one went down. The number of airworthy Concordes had been dropping over the years as ones with more flight hours or showing structural issues were grounded and scavenged for parts.

    3. Agree. I feel like as a society our ability to manage risk is steadily creeping towards a zero-tolerance policy where any risk at all is unacceptable. As our ability to eliminate risk increases, our perception of it shrinks, making things which nobody was seriously afraid of a generation ago seem suddenly scary. People are so afraid of everything these days, even though the world has literally never been safer.

      Except climate change. That’s coming to fuck us all, but nobody gives serious effort towards mitigating that risk.

      The shuttle was the world’s most complex machine operating in the most dangerous environment. Had this been a work of fiction, the shuttle’s safety record would have been considered too unbelievable and sent back for revision. It’s miraculous how statistically safe it was, considering its work. But it was also one of the most observed machines, so any failure whatsoever was intensely magnified by our stupid cognitive bias. If cars had the same safety record we should be ecstatic, but cars don’t explode in the sky on international TV or get hit by micrometeorites. They suffer sad, mundane risks like drunk drivers and cell phones. Far more dangerous, kills millions of times more people. Nobody cares.

      1. Thats the exact attitude that lead to death of 14 astronauts, yes there are dangers is space flight but its clear that the attitudes its space its dangerous so get on with it is part of what lead to 14 preventable deaths. Both of these failure where not caused by random equipment failures they where caused by ignoring blatant and overcomable issues.

        1. I don’t get the impression at all that TGT was saying that “blatant and overcomable issues” should be ignored. There are many ignorant people that would defund and discontinue all efforts towards human space travel and safety is one of the poor arguments that they make. I think TGT was speaking towards those people. This is not the same as saying that Challenger should have been launched in cold weather that engineers had warned it’s O-Rings were not equipped for or that the dangers of falling chunks of foam should have been ignored until the crew of the Columbia was already lost.

          1. The o-rings problem was just a scapegoat for a bigger problem in the design of how the booster sections mated together. They “found” it to put a blame on a simple “oops”, to avoid admitting the bigger problem that the boosters were of unsound and unsafe design.

            Morton-Thiokol observed that the sections between the SRBs weren’t mating properly together, and at launch time you could see puffs of smoke coming out, but each time the smoke stopped because the O-rings popped out of the groove and sealed the leak. Instead of recognizing this as a problem, the company “normalized” the fault and ignored the engineers that were screaming it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Then when the weather went cold, the stiff o-rings didn’t pop out, and the Challenger exploded.

        2. It lead to a small handful of preventable deaths and a huge amount of societal and technological progress. That’s the crux of my argument. You can’t possibly eliminate risk entirely, but you can eliminate progress while you try to. There comes a time when you have to accept it. People die in every line of work in the world on a daily basis. Why is it considered reasonable to expect that people in the world’s most dangerous line of work shouldn’t?

    4. But can smart be an option? We should have figured out by the mid 80s that the STS was a pork fueled welfare package for big aerospace contractors in important congressional districts.
      Challenger is where we should have bagan a phase out and return to Apollo/Constellation type diversified return to space.
      Instead we have been trapped doing Gemini stuff in a big winged wagon with a small lab or building/visiting less-than-Skylabs with a Saturn V priced launch every time we needed to visit LEO, well now we need to buy seats from a frenemy country with nukes pointed at us that has expanded it’s borders twice now in the last 15 years at the expense of their neighbors, all because we couldn’t plan ahead.

      1. Are you kidding? Should have figured it out buy the mid 80s? I’m sure there were engineers who could have told you this before the corpse of the Apollo program was even cold!

        Pork wins politicians the support of powerful people. What can you do about it?

  3. This is the first time that I read about details of thermal shield repair in orbit. I wonder, if they had a “peanut butter” thermal shielding caulk, why didn’t they used something like that from the get go, instead of the fragile ceramic tiles?

    Perhaps the best solution was to just make the skin of the Shuttle tough and elastic, and to have internal “glands” just continuously oozing fresh gel through a network of pipes into the surface “pores” as the surface layers of existing one get ablated during atmospheric re-entry.

    Or, today with fancy computer control, shuttle could do the Space-X trick of rocket braking and perhaps entered atmosphere with lower speed, switching to horizontal flight once the air is thick enough for aerodynamic lift, all that without special thermal shielding.

    1. The caulk was used to fill the holes in the shuttle’s heat shield, not simply as a heat shield itself. It was intended to prevent hot gases on reentry from burning their way into the holes caused by debris damage.

      1. But, it does have me thinking. instead of an EVA, they could have made a tool that connected to the Canadarm that had
        the “caulk gun with peanut butter, a stereo camera, and squeegee”

        1. Hmm.. I’m imagining what it would feel like to go through re-entry.. ship surrounded by hot plasma… knowing that something spat out by my 3d printer is holding the heat shield in place…


        2. Just for clarification, by the phrase “they could have made a tool “,
          I didn’t mean while in orbit, but as long as they already had the “caulk gun” and “squeegee” in the STS repair kit, maybe they could have gone a step further and just made it an all-in-one tool for the Canadarm and stow it in the cargo bay. EVAs take a lot of time and resources and high risks. While it took the crew 8 hours or so just to scan the Shuttle for damage with the Canadarm, hopefully they could have used it to make any repairs instead of just holding the footplate for the EVAnaut.

    2. Going from LEO speeds (in excess of 8km/s) to…something lower…while still in space is:
      1) dumb. The amount of fuel is huge, getting it all up there takes an exponentially greater amount of fuel (and a bigger rocket) NOT AN OPTION
      2) not helpful. If you slow down any considerable amount while still in space, you will have a very steep trajectory, you would have to keep slowing down until you are in dense enough atmosphere, which brings us to 1)
      Needing to use engines for braking on the Space Shuttle means being “ass forward”. Flying in the Space Shuttle means being “nose forward”. Transitioning from one to another in denser atmosphere at speed = aerodynamic forces would literally rip it apart, it’s not a jet fighter.

      Fancy computer control can’t overrule physics.

      What they should have done, is to make the shield consumable right after they found out that even the “reusable” one needed to be mostly replaced after each mission anyway. There have been spacecraft that used dense wood or even cork for their heatshields :P
      Then, they should have looked at how the Soviets made their version of the Shuttle – BIG, heavy-lift, self contained rocket that be used for missions without the orbiter and a (much lighter) shuttle with no big engines – and make their own version of that. It would be cheaper and more versatile.

        1. Keep the mission secret until it’s over and the cosmonaut is safe at home?
          If your people die then just pretend it never happened?

          Actually.. given the public’s inability to understand how risk really works. Yes.. that is the better way!

      1. What they should have done is replace the orbiter with an Apollo style re-entry vehicle sitting on top of a disposable cargo pod followed by disposable rocket engines. The weight saved would have boosted cargo capacity, and your heat shield would have been completely protected by the cargo pod until re-entry.

        1. A narrow vision. It’s not about the series itself, so much as the opening credits depicting humanity’s desire to explore what’s over the horizon. I think it’s a cool montage of scenes from the early Phoenicians, to the early days of aviation (Spirit of St Louis, Amelia Earhart), the early days of space exploration, a depiction of the chemical formulas, physics equations, to the program being discussed here (STS), to possible future spacecraft.

          A great testimonial to human ingenuity.

          1. Not sure which Star trek character said something to the effect, carbon units were impairing the development when presented with everything called “Enterprise”.

  4. “Due to the design of the Space Shuttle, no contingency plan or emergency procedure could have saved the crew at this point in the mission: all seven crew members were lost in this tragedy.”

    Mach 18.5 is kind of hard to get out of.

    1. There’s also the problem of launching, where you have the SRBs full of solid fuel and the big orange tank…if that ever decides to catch on fire in a different way then intended, the Shuttle can’t get away from the inferno on it’s own, so the crew would just have to patiently wait in the burning wreckage…(or in case of the Challenger, crash into the surface of the ocean at +300km/h)

      A “normal” rocket with a capsule has the luxury of an “escape tower” or in case of the Dragon capsule, integral liquid fueled engines. If anything goes wrong, the insanely powerful escape system will fling the capsule literally miles from the launch site and safely descend on the ground.
      One hell of a ride (it has to be capable of out-accelerating the main rocket), but the crew gets to fly another day.

      1. I spoke to a professor a UWM when I was a kid in the late 70s and he could not believe that they man rated the SRBs, non throttleable fireworks on the side of a manned spacecraft. We have all Kerbeled, it is insane to strap people to a rocket that cannot be shut down in an emergency.

        1. “that cannot be shut down in an emergency” – erm, it can be shut down. Permanently. Even remotely…with explosives :D
          You basically rip off the nozzle, which pretty much instantly kills all thrust. Still is on fire, but no thrust, so it can be (at least theoretically) jettisoned ;-)

  5. We must still go… it is in our nature.

    There may be gold there, or perhaps natives that need us to tell them what to do.

    We don’t have a great record once we get there, but we do always go.

  6. OK, I’ll be the one. Sorry to debase the HaD comment section, but in response to:

    >>”The only problem was that the Shuttle, unlike its Soviet-made counterpart, couldn’t actually land without somebody to flip the switches in the cockpit.”

    In Soviet Russia, Shuttle flies you!

    1. As a pilot I get this, early on the thinking was if they can lock the pilot out either part of full time why wouldn’t some bureaucrat try to implement that, and eventually make everyone in space airliner passengers to automation or ground control and no human in the loop.
      Rumor is that one STS mission the pilot actually flew hands on the whole reentry while most ran autopilot until they were in aerodynamic flight. An auto-land might have been useful in some movie of the week 2 pilots down emergency but remember this was a spacecraft designed in the 60s with five voting computers that were less than a TRS-80 CoCo each. The Soviets were doing the Buran designed 20 years later with modern computers and sensors onboard.

      1. Yet in reality, the Shuttle was fly-by-wire and basically all the pilot (well, “commander” :D) did, was keeping a computer generated symbol on the HUD in another computer generated symbol (on the HUD), indicating that they’re on the flight path…so…the human pilot was basically only a weak link in the system :P

    2. I mean we have space probes. Plenty of ’em. I know it’s somewhat controversial, but I think that manned space exploration is imperative. We make so many more advances solving those problems. Robots are relatively easy. But we choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

      Imagine if we had another technological boom like the one that followed the moonshot. It would be absolutely huge.

  7. Hey, Tom!

    Thanks for including the section on the Remote Controlled Orbiter (RCO) cable in your article! It really brings back fond memories for me. I was the Flight Control Systems Engineer that led the installation and testing effort of that cable in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL). By the way, the picture in your article (which I probably took), shows the cable installed in the SAIL cockpit and not a real Orbiter.

    As the SAIL representative on the RCO team, I led the development of the installation and test procedures the team used to install it into the SAIL and test its functionality. After we successfully installed and tested the RCO, our work was used to developed the In-Flight Maintenance (IFM) procedure that the crew would use to install the cable, if it were ever needed. We even had the STS-121 crew perform the installation in the SAIL, prior to their flight, to make sure the crew could perform the installation with no issues. It was a surprisingly complicated procedure, probably one of the most complicated IFMs ever written, since the Shuttle was not really designed for that level of modification in-flight; lots of panels and stowage compartments had to be removed, harnesses disconnected, etc. If I remember right, the IFM even called for a crew member to use a crowbar to remove/break a plastic cover to access the wire harnesses under the Commander’s eyebrow panel (the SAIL had a removable cover). The RCO team had a tight schedule to build and test this capability before the STS-121 mission, but we got it done, and thankfully it never had to be used!

    1. That is really interesting, and thank you for posting it.
      Your post does very much confirm one of the things Richard Feynman wrote as a problem of the shuttle program, the huge number of acronyms! I’m sure you get used to them if you’re in that environment all the time though. As a software developer I prefer my jargon to be meaningful.

  8. Sadly all but one of NASA’s trained astronauts died in stupid human tricks. He struck a canada goose while flying a T-jet. Bird strikes are a ongoing problem for all aircraft.

  9. I’m going to talk about the space station ( ISS ).
    The real sad part I think is that they are going to dump it into the Ocean when they are done with it. Or think they are done with It.
    I have not been keeping up with all the Information on the ISS, But didn’t they just install a Ion engine to it? To test.
    Wouldn’t it be better to send it to a higher orbit.
    I know it would cost money to send up a full fuel tank but with the weight of the fuel and the cost of filling up that little tank. Even if that little tank was 500 gal.
    That be so much better then polluting our oceans more? and Having a real big 20 billion dollar fire ball coming down.
    Wouldn’t they be able to send it to a orbit out of the way.
    It could be a source of metal and or a warehouse of supplies. or even a safe haven for those so called deep space missions.
    Heck you could even use parts for the new station around the moon.
    OR Or send the hole station to the moon.

    Nice wright up got a lot of people talking.

    Please for give my writing or the computer changing words on me.

  10. For all the criticism of the Shuttle, STS, if there is going to be a something there has to be a first one of that something and it is not odd that most first ones of complex things, especially vehicles and most especially flying vehicles, are quite flawed: even the first couple generations of steam locomotives had some fundamental flaws and inefficiencies and dangers to the crews.

    1. THIS!

      The system requirements for the Shuttle fluctuated a lot during the early design phase and so the Shuttle suffered from what is commonly called “requirements creep”. The types of missions envisioned for the Shuttle kept growing: build a Space Station, launch Secret DOD payloads, launch Commercial payloads, act as a Science Laboratory, have cross-range landing ability, reuse-ability, high payload down-mass, etc.. Also, the technology required to build the Shuttle was cutting edge at the time (fly-by-wire Avionics system being the newest and most important), and weren’t trusted, so the engineers over-designed redundancy into the system to make it safer, but also resulting in a much more complex design. With so many factors coming together, you ended up with a general purpose vehicle that was good at a number of roles, but not great at any one role.

  11. There’s a documentary from 2003 on the Shuttles that I’ve been trying to find. IIRC the title was “Space Shuttle Garage” and it was either on The History Channel or Discovery Channel. I didn’t get to see all of it, but figured like most of their shows it’d get repeated several times.

    Then came Feb. 1, 2003. The documentary was never shown again. I looked but didn’t find it for sale on THC or Discovery channel websites.

    What it covered was the process of servicing and refurbishing the Shuttles between flights, and some of it wasn’t super flattering to the process. One part showed a crew *failing* to get either one of the two Space Shuttle wheel nut torque wrenches to work correctly. Since they couldn’t get the nose wheel nuts torqued per the procedure, they stuck a note in the manual at the end of their shift.

    Another segment showed the process of making replacement tiles. Since every tile on every Shuttle was uniquely shaped (not even the same tile in the same location could be interchanged between two Orbiters) there was this huge room with many rows of shelves. On the shelves were full size 3D templates for the tiles.

    To make a tile the number was read off the damaged one. If the number was illegible, it would be found by looking up the numbers on surrounding tiles. To locate the template, the tile’s card would be pulled from a card catalog. Yup, just like the ones libraries had quit using sometime in the 1990’s. Take the card to the template room and locate the template. Next, use a bandsaw to roughly cut a block of silica foam to size. Mount the foam block and template into a manually operated 3D tracing pantograph, with the tile foam in a chamber with a vacuum to suck away dust. The carving tool was a spinning diamond grit coated cylinder about 1″ diameter with a rounded end. A matching size and shape probe was rubbed all over the template by the operator until the foam was carved to shape. Return template to the big room, card to catalog. After passing inspection, the tile would be hand dipped in the white coating and allowed to dry, then fired in a kiln, followed by visual inspection. Black tiles got a second dip, drying and firing in the black coating. After passing another inspection, the tile number was airbrushed on in several places, using stencils stored in another vintage style card catalog.

    Before seeing that I thought they’d use a multi-axis CNC machine to shape the silica foam, and some type of automated application of the ceramic coatings to ensure precision thickness. To see how it was actually done… mind *foom*.

    Much of the servicing process was firmly stuck in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Rather than putting all the manuals and instructions onto computer with a searchable database and system for keeping track of progress and issues, they continued to use huge binders, bookmarks and notes. Heaven help the person who lost a progress or problem note! Without written confirmation of every step and completion, a procedure would have to be redone to ensure it *was done*.

    That’s why I want to see the entire show, to see what else NASA never bothered to update and upgrade, to see what other inefficiencies the agency tolerated that drove up the cost and time it took to do a turnaround. Which is likely why the documentary has apparently been quite effectively ‘memory holed’, it shows too many of the ‘warts’ in the STS program.

    1. Well, as scary as it sounds. I’m pretty sure, in this domain, it’s much more dangerous and costly to change the already tested and established procedure, than to stick with it. Even if it sounds so outdated.
      Recent history is riddled with countless example of modernization that led to catastrophic failures.

  12. Testosterone poisoning, what a fool believes and nostalgic dreams of grandiose before their time when safer, healthier and more value added systems (like remote controlled robotic operations to maintain, recover and perform experiments using even high altitude command centers and satellite repeaters from ground main mission control stations) that don’t support narcissist suicidal sociopaths that want to murder the gullible, unknowing and vulnerable… all in pursuit of a waste of life, time, resources, mass, energy and the advancement of complex domesticated society by a bunch of primate predators. All increasing the heat on the planet that isn’t required to be. I pretty much never understood the reason for the space shuttle and was happy when the shuttle was retired. I think some brave men killed the targets they needed to… with some unfortunately prematurely retiring from their own mission from self inflicted wounds they only needed therapy to heal from that they thought they failed for some reason and will someday realize they didn’t in their no way selfish and very selfish executions that were legal if only attorneys would do their job validly.

  13. There is interesting advancements in experiments in space. I like the materials science leadership. I’m still not sure about the other advancements having much practical value on earth though. The main advancement we need to move forward with is the gravity issue and either creating gravity or the effect on the human body… if survival on a foreign planet or station is even feasible for long term operations. Seems grandiose and delusional to me to compel to obtain funding like religious groups that are not valid. If we look at the budget expenditures of all the space systems… seems like the NASA space program is a cover story like Discoverer was for Corona and it’s time to grow up kids and face the facts. There are some serious issues that are seriously dangerous and endangering society that need more attention to for survival here on earth for a larger range of the population and not a small sample set that compels, hacks or brute forces the best.

  14. Interesting to me also is how the X-15 was scrapped as being the potential “space shuttle.” Same with the X-20. Is interesting how in some ways I see a delta wing version of the X-15 in the A-12/SR-71.

    Now, there was a USAF re-lander rocket moon base and shuttle system though I forget what that project and system was called.

    I still think there are areas of opportunity for electromagnetic assisted launching also to save on fuel. Seems retarded not to pursue… even if steam assisted.

    1. There was that guy who came up with the idea of a space cannon. The only country interested in funding it was Iraq, they wanted it pointed West instead of East, as most rocket launches go. It’s pretty much generally accepted that the inventor’s death was at the hands of Israel’s Mossad.

          1. G onset is an issue. While fast, even a plane in a mist-rapid manouver, increases G-force. It is not instantaneous. Old P52 mustangs, if I recall, could pull 12G’s… There was a momentary black out, even w a G-suit, I believe. So, “gun” could be relative, in accelleration, or the “hammer” suddenness could kill.

          2. Right… derivatives of speed are first velocity, second acceleration, third jerk then there is the fourth that is jounce or snap.

            That’s why I think the Bull Gun isn’t the best idea.

            Need something like a rail gun or steam assisted launch system that changes in a controlled rate.

            The Gerald R. Ford Class carriers are doing this so that’s a start. I guess the pilot group and bomber wing thing is more directly connected.

            I complained about this in the 90’s and when I was at Tech. Seemed like a no brainer for someone who like utilities. I agree though if you’re on me regarding phase changes and the energy saving there.

      1. Galane: Right. There are the multi-charge kinetic systems that make more sense logically like the Germans were working on. The assassinated guy’s were rather single charge if I understand correctly. I may be wrong though.

  15. The shuttle was a horribly flawed design right from the start, hobbled by political compromise to ensure pork went to the right places. The fact that poor management and culture at NASA led to the loss of the Challenger, and then all the mistakes were repeated again with Columbia, makes me wonder if NASA have learned lessons for now, only to be repeated later when complacency sets in again.

    Maybe the best lesson is that NASA should not be in the business of routine space ops anyway. Private enterprise should take over that role. While money was being sunk into the Shuttle (sunk cost fallacy), it held back further progress by a decade or two.

  16. > [re: Columbia] Steps needed to be taken to ensure no future astronauts would be lost
    Steps were NOT taken (in defiance of Feynman’s advice) after Challenger.

    The ROOT CAUSE was not the O-ring. The root cause was something else: The NASA state-of-mind that causes launches (and in the case of Columbia: reentries) to proceed in the face of severe warning signs.

    I remember a space walk being discussed while Columbia was in orbit.

    It is the: nah, things went fine last time “the o-ring eroded” / “a chunk of ice hit the orbiter” state-of-mind that caused these disasters.

    And that “self inspection arm” that I see above seems to be addressing the single issue of the chunk-of-ice-hitting-the-wing. But again nothing to address the root cause.

    When doing accident investigations, you notice a pattern. A great many incidents happen. In aviation there are strict guidelines as to what needs to be reported and what not. In other fields of work (including the rocket business!?!) they often go unreported. Things like: Oops, that could’ve escalated to a serious issue, but luckily nothing happened. Some of them escalate to a serious incident, some to a small accident and then some to a big accident.

    NASA is through-and-through an organisation that will fix the immediate issue when a big accident happens, but not take lessons from the incidents and small accidents that happen.

    SpaceX seems to be on the right track: They postpone a launch when a faulty redundant sensor is detected.

  17. I think the Apollo series would be more deadly in terms of lives per mission. Apollo 1 lost three men on the pad with far fewer total missions. Although the shuttle casualties were tragic, I think that the overall safety of the program is pretty amazing considering the complexity of the systems.

    1. Well, it depends if you consider their deaths as a flight accident. It happened on the ground while all rocket flight systems were off and the tank was not even fueled then the fire started due to an elecric shorcut.

  18. I’ve always wondered why they didn’t modify the X-15 more since I thought the launch system was more effective and successful in regards to at least number of missions.

    Would be interesting to see the F-106 RASCAL Project design improved and really more-so in the spirit of human operations in space… either the X-15 again, Pegasus system modified for humans or the X-37 system modified for humans.

    Then again… seems all that stuff can be left to robots. Maybe give the robots the astronaut jobs and keep more jobs on the planet for people if not well subsidized, not malicious and non-destructive.

  19. Can I just mention Skylon and Reaction Engines Ltd? All seems to be a good alternative to pushing things straight up in the air to me but perhaps you all know different.

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