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Interesting to remember the Columbia tragedy while recalling Richard Feynman's report summarizing the culture problems at NASA he found following the Challenger disaster. It's clear that NASA ultimately learned very little (or forgot it after 15 years).

No matter the state of the shuttle program, it's also a shame that NASA didn't maintain a non-reusable rocket system that could have allowed for expensive but relatively low-risk emergency flights for this sort of thing. If the shuttle's all you've got then it's going to be difficult to address unexpected problems with another shuttle just like it.

It seems NASA's safety culture erodes in cycles:

Apollo 1 fire - 27 January 1967 Challenger disaster - 28 January 1986 (19 yrs later) Colombia disaster - 1 February 2003 (17 yrs later)

There's probably an interesting thought experiment around organizational behavior and deterioration of standards in the cycle time here...

No, it's a coincidence. The foam was a disaster waiting to happen from day 1. The second mission after the Challenger disaster was nearly destroyed by foam. The two astronauts who inspected it in orbit were certain they were going to die. (In this case, rescue was impossible.) Miraculously, the worst damage was over an unusually sturdy part of the shuttle.


(I learned about this a few weeks ago in another HN thread. :-)

Henry Petroski has a 30 failure cycle for bridge technologies (see http://www.amazon.com/Success-through-Failure-Paradox-Design... ).

Not really, it's just random chance mostly, at least during the Shuttle program. The Apollo program was too short to draw firm conclusions from.

People often believe that NASA had bad luck when they lost Challenger and Columbia, the truth is the opposite, they came extremely close to losing a lot more crews. On the very first flight, STS-1, there was a serious problem with the body flap on the orbiter caused by an overpressure wave from the SRBs, John Young, the commander of the flight, said that if he had known of the problem during takeoff he would have bailed out during launch. Later flights had other, equally serious problems. STS-8 came very close to suffering the same fate as Challenger. STS-9 could have easily been lost if the computer crashes that occurred in flight happened during re-entry or to the fire and explosion of 2 out of 3 of its auxiliary power units, which occurred just after touchdown, fortunately. STS-27 suffered sever TPS damage and could easily have been lost just as Columbia was.

For many of these issues NASA worked on fixing them but never acknowledged the full extent of the risk and mostly just pretended that everything was OK up until something bad happened. If the fires on STS-9 never occurred an APU disaster could have resulted in loss of a crew during a flight. Even though TPS damage from foam/ice strikes happened on many flights NASA was never able to tackle the problem and merely got away with being lucky, right up until the loss of Columbia on STS-107.

If you're interested in the topic I recommend this book:


Tompkins looks at the differences in what went wrong culturally between Challenger and Columbia. Pretty fascinating.

This does seem to be a reasonable amount of time to scrub institutional memory within the band of middle management ultimately responsible for the decisions and culture of the institution. Seems like a topic ripe for management and I/O psych research... I assume something like it has already been well tread.

I've seen similar arguments for cycles of pacifism and militarism in populations as a whole over a longer period of time -- a couple of generations typically. Interesting observation.

Well, I'm already feeling sorry for the people in 2020/2021

However, even sadder than that would be having no accident because nothing flew

I wish something like the ATV SSTO[0] had been built. A small, reusable, single-stage-to-orbit crew transport.

[0] http://www.astronautix.com/lvs/atv.htm

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