Challenger and Columbia: What Have We Learned?

The following was written by Talking Space founder and commentator Gene Mikulka who is also a guest editor for AstroAnarchy.


Challenger and Columbia: What Have We Learned?

On January 28th, 2016 we observed the thirtieth anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger accident. On the cold, clear morning of January 28th, 1986 Challenger and her crew of seven shook the ice off of Launch Complex 39 B and attempted to reach for the stars.

They would never make it.

At .678 seconds after ignition, the aft field joint which connected the vehicle’s solid rocket booster, failed. The failure allowed a bright flame to burn though the booster casing acting like a blowtorch against the skin of the Challenger’s large external fuel tank. After seventy three seconds of flight, the orbiter, according to the Rogers Commission investigating the accident now ”under severe dynamic loads, broke apart into several large sections“after being engulfed by a fireball when its large external fuel tank, filled with volatiles was breached as a result of the booster malfunction. All seven of Challenger’s crew perished.

Did we really learn anything from that tragic event in 1986?

Sure we learned that we should not launch outside known parameters. The low air temperatures on that day played a factor and reveled a significant design flaw that had been know about since the second flight of the Space Shuttle program. It showed that we made a significant mistake putting all of our launch services all in one basket. At the time, America was depending solely on the Shuttle to launch all of its satellites both civilian and military. We saw the error there, and started to get back into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle business and saving the Orbiter fleet for missions where humans needed to be in the loop, and the orbiter could provide its services for those unique missions.

There were other contributions to the accident, including self-imposed launch schedule pressures and in the case of the aft field joint rubber O-rings, not listening to what the machine had been trying to tell us, or worse listening but engaging in a game of “Russian Roulette” as Dr. Richard Feynman, a member of the Rogers Commission investigating the accident, described it.

However did things really change?


Fast forward to the launch of Space Shuttle Columbia, the morning of January 16th, 2003. Eighty two seconds into the flight, a piece of foam, no bigger than a suitcase and weighing a mere two pounds ripped off the left bipod atop the orbiter’s fuel tank. The foam would impact the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing. At the time of the impact the orbiter was traveling at a speed of about 1870 MPH. The impact created a large hole in the left wing.
The mission would end tragically when on the morning of February 1st, 2003 during re-entry, the insult suffered by Columbia on launch day sealed the fate of America’s first space worthy orbiter and her crew of seven astronauts, among them the first Israeli citizen to fly in space.

As the orbiter headed home through the atmosphere, the breech in Columbia’s hull allowed gasses which were in the neighborhood of 5000 degrees Fahrenheit, to enter the left wing of the spacecraft. The gasses acted like a blowtorch, destroying the structure of the wing. The automatic systems on board Columbia valiantly tried to keep the Orbiter on a straight path but in the end flight, controls deteriorated and with Columbia traveling at a speed of 10,000 MPH dynamic forces playing on the orbiter tore into the spacecraft. Survivability for the crew was impossible.wp-1454358988479.jpg

Once again, as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) discovered the foam loss was a known problem demonstrated in several flights. Once again there were self-imposed launch schedule pressures, in this instance the desire to complete assembly of the International Space Station by a certain date. And once again we didn’t listen to what our machines were telling us.

The sad part with both accidents was that they could have been prevented had we listened to what our machines were telling us and taken action.

Will we learn our lesson so there isn’t a “next time?” My hope is that the design teams at Boeing assembling the CST100 Starliner, at Space Exploration Technologies putting the Crew Dragon together and NASA’s Orion spacecraft team have the crew pictures of Challenger and Columbia at their desks along with the crew of the first scheduled Apollo mission as a reminder to, as the late Gus Grissom, commander of the Apollo -1 had said
“Do Good Work”

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