Who is Really to Blame for Columbia?

Next to the question "What made the space shuttle Columbia fall apart as it came back to Earth on February 1?" is the question "Who is to blame?" Everyone wants the answer to those questions. The answer to the first question is a work in progress, so to speak, it's becoming more clear what went wrong but it will take time to be sure. The answer to the second question is not so hard, but it is a question that politicians don't like because the truth is, they are the cause for NASA's stagnant budget, too little money and not enough money to do things the right way. It was the politicians who inflicted budget cut after budget cut that ultimately led to the Columbia disaster.

For years, NASA has been in a bad situation, one squeezed between pressures to build the space station, and to continue operating with budget cuts that sacrificed safety. There had been long term programs in place to ensure that the shuttle would be safe for two more decades of operation. Because of budget cuts, these long term programs were set aside.

Richard Blomberg, the former head of NASA's independent safety advisory panel, said years of neglect had resulted in a shuttle program that was operating safely only in the short term, a scenario that came to a crashing halt on Feb. 1, when shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the skies over Texas, snuffing out the lives of seven astronauts.

Blomberg was called to testify before the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) and said he had never known people more committed to safety than the people he had worked with at NASA. But he described them as fighting a losing battle. "When you're so goal-oriented and you're so budget-limited you tend to put blinders on and you tend to look at the next flight" said Blomberg. "The old not-seeing-the-forest-for-the trees comes into play."

The shuttle workers were under stress because if they did not keep up the schedule, it would cause things to fall behind with the space station. They also knew, that if they could not perform within the limited budget they had, they might risk the whole program. No one, should have to work under those conditions. Bloomberg told the CAIB "They need relief. They're not going to be able to fly for another 20 years under the stress levels that they've been asked to fly under for the last seven or eight years."

Ultimately, this scenario caused NASA to bypass it's own very stringent safety rules, and allowed Columbia to fly in spite of knowing that foam had fallen off during the previous shuttle flight and struck the solid rocket booster. That should have set off the system NASA painstakingly put in place after the 1986 Challenger accident, which also killed seven astronauts. And Boeing manager Dan Bell testified that foam has been a problem since the start of the shuttle program.

CT scans of the carbon-carbon panels on the leading wing edge of the shuttle Atlantis showed gaps between the layers. This may have been made worse when the two pound piece of foam fell off the external fuel tank and struck Columbia just after liftoff. Preliminary findings show a breach in Columbia's left wing allowed hot gases to get inside the structure, melting it.

CAIB board chairman Harold Gehman said neither his panel nor NASA is satisfied with the analysis performed during Columbia's 16-day research mission that concluded the strike on the shuttle's left wing was not a serious issue. Based on that analysis, NASA bypassed offers to use military satellites to try to image the shuttle's wing to look for signs of damage. Or at least that's what shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore thought. Now, new evidence is surfacing that there were some managers who specifically did request satellite imagry. But such requests never got to Dittemore's level. Board member Sally Ride, a former astronaut, said the oversights are similar to management flaws uncovered following the Challenger accident. "Somewhere humans failed." Blomberg said.

If we want to space program, we cannot continue to allow people to work in the conditions NASA's people have been forced to. NASA needs a realistic budget that it can operate within it's own safety protocols. Under the conditions they have been operating under, the wonder is that this didn't happen long before Columbia.

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Kathy Miles, Author, and Chuck Peters, Systems Administrator
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