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Was the Columbia Tragedy Preventable?

By Roy D. Follendore III

Copyright (c) 2003 by RDFollendoreIII

February 1, 2003

The problem that Americans should be discussing for some time is not just the fact that America has lost another member of our shuttle fleet and another brave crew.  That is a tragic symptom of a problem.  It isn't even the idea of should human beings should be going into space.  That is a human necessity.  What we should be talking about is the issue of what went wrong with respect to how we should make our space fleet safer for our astronauts.  The question no longer needs to be asked if Columbia was unsafe. That is now a 100% undisputable fact. The question was what NASA should have done about the problems before it fell apart at 200,000 feet.  Engineers and administrators have been given the gift of hindsight and accountability.  The astronauts were not.  If we now look in hindsight we can see why.

Columbia was a twenty year old space vehicle and in 1981 became the very first shuttle to fly into orbit.  It was wearing out just as all things wear out.  I might compare these wear and tear issues to something we all know.  I happen to own a car that is two years younger and I take excellent good care of it.  That does not mean that  I would not hesitate to drive it across the country.  Things back then could not be designed with the same degree of sophistication and quality control that we now can achieve.  Columbia was built before the integrated concepts of design computers was invented.  It had been rewired and overhauled several times.  There have been a maximum of about 700 wiring defects found in all of the other shuttles.  Columbia had five times that number before it crashed on reentry today.  In spite of this, the Columbia was scheduled to fly eight times a year.

Once again, in spite of all of this Columbia was considered by NASA management to be space worthy.  It is probable that there will be an explicit cause on which today's crash will be blamed.  The truth is that we should all expect that Columbia was a victim of organized decision making.  Within the complexities of the modern world this is the true problem that most often is the leading cause of catastrophe.  Was the Columbia tragedy preventable?  The answer is yes, it was.  Is the next shuttle tragedy preventable?  That answer is also yes, but only if NASA gets better as solving the biggest technical problem that they have, and that would be the problem of making the best organizational decisions for their engineering program.   




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