The Columbia Disaster: Choice Points, Gaps, Dangerous Thinking

Cite as: Lighthall, F. F. 2014, “The Columbia Disaster: Choice Points, Gaps, Dangerous Thinking.”

After the Challenger accident, Allan McDonald and his Thiokol redesign team designed a creative cure for the boosters’ field and nozzle joints. NASA made improvements in other parts of the shuttle system and shuttle flights resumed with the launch of Discovery, STS-26R, on September 29, 1988.

Discovery completed its four-day mission two years and eight months after the Challenger accident. This successful flight was followed by eighty-five others, including one nearly catastrophic flight just after the Challenger accident. The eighty-seventh flight, fourteen years after Discovery’s return to flight, ended once more in disaster and loss of all crew members. Returning to earth the morning of February 1, 2003, after sixteen days in space, the Orbiter Columbia disintegrated shortly after reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Seventeen days earlier, 81 seconds after Columbia’s January 16 launch, a chunk of foam insulation had torn loose from its external tank. The light, Styrofoam-like chunk of insulation had been struck almost head-on by the Orbiter’s wing at a net speed of more than 500 miles an hour, bursting a large hole in the leading edge of Columbia’s wing. Columbia ascended safely into its orbit with this hole in its wing. Returning to earth after completing its sixteen-day mission, the friction between Columbia’s wing and the earth’s atmosphere generated 3,000° F of heat that penetrated the hole in its wing, weakening the wing’s inner structure and causing disintegration of the Orbiter and the deaths of its crew.

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