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Columbia's Last Flight

๐ŸŒˆ Abstract

The article provides an in-depth account of the investigation into the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew in 2003. It delves into the technical details of the shuttle's launch, orbit, and re-entry, as well as the complex organizational and cultural factors within NASA that contributed to the accident.

๐Ÿ™‹ Q&A

[01] Columbia's Last Flight

1. What was the initial suspicion about the cause of the Columbia's breakup during re-entry? The article states that in the minutes before the Columbia's breakup, only a few NASA engineers suspected that the vehicle and its crew might be in trouble. The initial suspicion was that the low tire pressure indication in the cockpit was due to a sensor problem rather than an actual issue with the tires.

2. How did the investigation team determine that the foam strike on launch was the cause of the accident? The investigation found that a piece of foam about 19 inches long and 11 inches wide broke off from the external tank during launch and struck the left wing of the Columbia, punching a hole about 10 inches across in the leading edge. This hole allowed hot gases to penetrate the wing during re-entry, leading to its destruction.

3. What was NASA's initial reaction to the foam strike as a potential cause of the accident? The article states that many of NASA's managers remained stubbornly closed-minded about the foam strike being the cause, as it had become a matter of faith within the agency that foam strikes could not cause serious damage to the shuttle. NASA officials, including the shuttle program manager, initially dismissed the foam strike as a non-issue.

[02] The Investigation

1. How did the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) approach the investigation differently from NASA's internal team? The CAIB, led by Hal Gehman, took a more rigorous and independent approach, challenging NASA's assumptions and insisting on testing the foam strike theory through experiments. Gehman was wary of NASA's tendency to defend itself as an organization and was determined not to be "rolled by the system."

2. What were some of the key pieces of evidence that the CAIB uncovered during the investigation? Key evidence included amateur videos showing debris separating from the shuttle, the recovery of the undamaged data recorder (MADS) that provided detailed telemetry data on the left wing's failure, and the successful foam impact test that demonstrated the damage a foam strike could cause to the leading edge.

3. How did the CAIB's approach to the investigation differ from NASA's typical response to accidents? The CAIB was more transparent and open to public scrutiny, in contrast to NASA's typical insular and controlling response. Gehman insisted on an independent budget and the ability to publicly release findings, rather than deferring to NASA's internal investigation.

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