This is Phoebe Zimmermann.
And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Seven astronauts and the Space Shuttle Columbia were lost in an accident February first. Today we tell about the results of the investigation to discover the cause of that terrible accident.
Saturday morning, February first, two-thousand-three, was an exciting day at the Kennedy Space Center. American space agency officials, workers and family members of the seven astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia were waiting to watch the space vehicle land.
The crew had performed a successful science flight in orbit around the Earth. They worked on their science experiments twenty-four hours a day during the sixteen-day flight.
At eight-fifteen in the morning, the Space Shuttle Columbia and the crew of seven began entering Earth’s atmosphere. At eight-fifty-nine, NASA lost all information and communication with Columbia.
The shuttle was flying six times faster than the speed of sound and sixty-two kilometers above the Earth. People in three states reported hearing an extremely loud noise and seeing fire in the sky.
A television cameraman in the southwestern state of Texas was waiting for the Columbia to pass over his area. He pointed his camera in the area of the sky were the shuttle would be seen.
The pictures he recorded showed a bright light and a long trail of white smoke. Columbia was breaking apart.
Within minutes, NASA confirmed that something was terribly wrong. Within an hour, it announced the Columbia and its crew had been lost. Thousands of pieces of the shuttle fell in a huge area of the United States, including parts of the states of California, Arizona, Texas and Louisiana.
On August twenty-sixth, the special Columbia Accident Investigation Board reported on the causes of the February first accident.
The committee’s thirteen members spent seven months gathering information for the report. The committee had more than one-hundred-twenty investigators to help them and more than four-hundred NASA engineers to explain technical information.
The committee’s report says the main cause of the accident was a piece of light-weight protective material. This material came loose from the support structure that connects the shuttle to the large rocket it uses during launch.
The object hit the edge of Columbia’s left wing with a strong force caused by the great speed of the shuttle. This created a small hole in the wing’s special protective material. This material is designed to provide protection against the fierce heat caused by the shuttle’s speed when it reenters Earth’s atmosphere.
After its sixteen successful days in space, the shuttle began returning to Earth. When the shuttle began to fly into Earth’s atmosphere, extremely hot air passed through the hole and into the wing. This heat damaged the metal and caused the wing to fail. The shuttle went out of control and began to come apart. There was no possible way for the seven members of the crew to survive.
The Columbia accident investigating committee’s report says the protective material hitting and damaging the wing was the main cause of the accident.
The committee said the accident should never have been permitted to happen. It said NASA officials must accept much of the responsibility that led to the accident. The committee said the management system that controls NASA failed in several important jobs. When these tasks were linked together they created problems or failed to solve problems that led to the accident.
The committee members said it is important to remember that the investigation of the accident was an investigation of the NASA system, not an investigation of individual people.
The group’s report says NASA’s management team learned soon after Columbia’s launch that the protective material had hit the wing. NASA management members watched film of the incident several times.
This was not the first time this had happened. This same kind of protective material had come loose before and hit other shuttles. NASA’s management decided it had not created a problem in the past and was not important this time. Officials decided that the material had not damaged the wing.
The investigating committee asked why nothing was done to correct and prevent this from happening again as it had in the past. The report said correcting the problem of loose material during launch would have prevented the accident.
After NASA learned that the material had hit the wing, several NASA workers suggested the Department of Defense use a special satellite to take photographs of the wing. The photographs could be studied to see if the wing had been damaged.
The NASA workers asked for this kind of inspection three different times. The investigating committee said NASA’s management either took no action or blocked such an inspection.
The committee also said the NASA workers who made the requests for the photographs had not made them to the correct management teams. Also, one of the requests did not suggest that this might be an important safety issue.
The committee report said the requests were among eight chances that could have resulted in pictures of Columbia in space. These pictures might have provided evidence that the wing had been severely damaged. This could have led to actions that might have prevented the loss of the crew of Columbia and the shuttle.
The members of the Columbia Accident Investigating Board said they believe human space fight must continue. The group also said the people who fly into space do so knowing that danger is always involved in such a flight.
The committee said safety must be the first concern of all NASA workers. It said this is the only way to make acceptable the dangers of space travel. The committee’s report said NASA workers must feel they can go to their team managers with any safety concerns.
The report also said the workers must know that managers will take the needed action to improve safety, or take the needed steps to investigate any possible safety problem.
The investigating committee’s two-hundred-fifty page report ended with twenty-nine suggestions to improve safety for those who fly into space. One of these is the creation of an independent technical engineering group.
This group would be responsible for investigating any safety threat that might harm a shuttle craft. The group would also identify and investigate anything that might create a danger to the shuttle system.
It would also have the power to stop any launch if a problem became a safety issue or caused a threat to the crew or the shuttle.
The committee also recommended a new training program for the Space Flight Mission Management Team. The new training would expand vehicle safety emergencies. The management team would train to deal with unexpected problems that might take place during future flights.
The team would also train to work quickly in an emergency with support organizations within NASA and with the companies that build the equipment NASA uses on space craft.
The committee members also recommended developing a new method of recording space shuttle launches. They said at least three cameras should be used to photograph the Space Shuttle launch. These cameras would record the shuttle from launch to the separation of the solid rocket booster. Experts would then carefully study this recorded information after each launch to look for possible damage to the shuttle.
The committee also said the future of safe human space flight depends on good leadership. The group said the people of NASA must change. Safety must come first in all future launches.
On Monday, NASA released a plan that includes the steps the agency is taking to obey each suggestion of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said these steps are already being carried out. He said NASA will work to return the three remaining space shuttles to flight as soon as safely possible.
This program was written by Paul Thompson and produced by Mario Ritter. This is Phoebe Zimmermann.
And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program in Special English on the Voice of America.