NOVA: Space Shuttle Disaster

Tue, 10/14/2008 - 8:00pm

Official crew photo from Mission STS-107 on the space shuttle Columbia


At the end of a nearly flawless 15-day mission in early 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, killing the crew of seven. On Space Shuttle Disaster, NOVA probes the accident and the decisions stretching back four decades that made the tragedy almost inevitable. NOVA: Space Shuttle Disaster airs Tuesday, October 14 at 8 p.m on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1)

The Columbia disaster, during the 113th shuttle mission, was the beginning of the end for the space plane. NASA responded by announcing the retirement of the shuttle in 2010, to be replaced by the Orion crew exploration vehicle as part of the Constellation program, which is inspired partly by an earlier generation of Apollo-style rocketry and spacecraft. The decision to retire the space shuttle program is currently under intense review, as it would leave the U.S. with a “space gap” until the new Orion vehicle becomes ready around 2015. 

Exploring the past and future of the shuttle through the lens of the Columbia accident, NOVA interviews key NASA personnel who witnessed problems with the space shuttle program firsthand, including NASA engineer Rodney Rocha, who tried to sound the alarm about Columbia’s potentially damaged condition; and flight director Leroy Cain, who worked with controllers to make sense of a cascade of warning signals from the craft during its ill-fated return to Earth.

Rocha and others worried that a piece of foam that tore from the shuttle’s external propellant tank and struck the left wing 81 seconds after liftoff could have damaged the craft, making it vulnerable to the high heat generated during re-entry. But Rocha’s superiors refused his request to try to confirm possible damage. 

Also interviewed are members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, NASA administrators, astronauts, journalists and prominent space-policy experts. 

The Columbia disaster was the second catastrophic failure in the shuttle program. In 1986, the shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after launch, also killing seven. 

shows that both accidents can be traced to design trade-offs built into the shuttle concept. Apollo-era spacecraft were designed with the cabin carrying the crew positioned on top of the rocket, offering some protection from falling debris and a chance of escape from a malfunctioning vehicle. However, the crew- and cargo-carrying section of the shuttle is so large that it has to be strapped to the side of a huge external propellant tank. 

In the case of Challenger, one of the solid rocket boosters developed a leak that ruptured the external tank, immediately destroying the shuttle. For Columbia, a piece of foam insulation covering the external tank fatally damaged the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing. Neither scenario is likely with an Apollo-style design, in which the manned spacecraft sits on top. 

Both accidents were foreseen by engineers who were then ignored by NASA managers under pressure to meet launch schedules and cut costs. Renowned during the heady days of Apollo for its clear-eyed evaluation of risk and willingness to do everything possible to reduce it, NASA, some experts felt, had become complacent and bureaucratically rigid. Even while the damaged Columbia was in orbit, there was a chance the crew could have been rescued by another shuttle if only the true state of her condition had been known, but that chance was tragically missed. 

Space Shuttle Disaster is a penetrating look at the history of the shuttle program and the political pressures that made the shuttle a highly complex engineering compromise, which fell short of its ambitious goal to make space travel routine, cheap and safe. The film brings to the forefront the uncertain future of human spaceflight after the 2010 scheduled shuttle retirement. Many questions remain, including what are the consequences if the U.S. is out of orbit for five years?