With space shuttle Discovery safely out of NASA’s hands, a former flight director and program manager on Wednesday talks about how the shuttle was almost lost during the first flight following the 2003 Columbia accident.
“We dodged a bullet in 2005. One we should have seen coming but didn’t,” Wayne Hale writes in his blog.
Hale, who left NASA in 2010 after 32 years with the agency, is referring to the first shuttle flight after the 2003 Columbia accident. The mission, designated STS-114 and flown on Discovery, launched on July 26, 2005.
NASA had fixed the problem with the shuttle’s insulating foam, which was the smoking gun in the series of events that led to the destruction of Columbia and its crew on Feb. 1, 2003, as the shuttle was returning to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for landing. Seven astronauts died in NASA’s worst accident since the 1986 Challenger disaster.
Columbia’s wing had been struck by a piece of falling foam debris during liftoff 16 days earlier, with no one realizing the extent of the damage.
NASA redesigned the shuttle’s fuel tank after the accident to minimize foam debris, but during the final briefing before Discovery was cleared to launch on the first post-Columbia mission, there was an ominous warning that NASA’s repair strategy might be flawed.
“What you probably don’t know is that a side note in a final briefing before Discovery’s flight pointed out that the large chunk of foam that brought down Columbia could not have been liberated from an internal installation defect. Hmm. After 26 months of work, nobody knew how to address that little statement. Of course we had fixed everything. What else could there be? What else could we do? We were exhausted with study, test, redesign. We decided to fly,” writes Hale.
Turns out, NASA had more work to do.
Image: Beautiful liftoff of Discovery on July 26, 2005, and then trouble. Credit: NASA