The Columbia Accident

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The Columbia Accident




The United States has experienced or seen its fair share of calamities and accidents. These seem to have increased with enhanced technology. Accidents involving space shuttles may be less prevalent than others involving vehicles and airplanes, but when they happen, they cause quite a stir that lasts a long time. One of the most quoted space shuttles accidents in the United States history is The Columbia Accident, which occurred in 2003. Of course, the space shuttle accident resulted in massive losses, in financial terms, as well as in terms of lives as none of the seven member crew was recovered (Koestler, 2004). Cabbage and Harwood (2009) note that, the space shuttle broke apart, with its wreckage becoming scattered across Western Louisiana and East Texas.  Unfortunately, as much as the shuttle may have been different, the mistakes were similar to the ones that had resulted in a similar accident, in 1986.         Comparing the findings of different reports done in different times, it is evident that the Columbia Accident was history repeating itself. Going by the reports and assuming that they were true, at least in part, the accident may be blamed on reasons that rest on the broader cultural and political constraints that were (and still are) equally real to the NASA employee as were the technical constraints. It is worth noting that the space shuttle was touted as the next step for the United States to maintain its space leadership, as well as retain jobs for varied individuals working with NASA, not to mention contractors in key states. However, the space shuttle program resulted from numerous compromises on operations, costs, timelines, design and mission. These compromises resulted in a shuttle system presented to the nation as safe and robust, yet it needed heroic efforts and actions so as to manage the numerous issues surrounding it. The multiplicity of issues surrounding the program resulted in the mistakes that caused the Columbia Accident. Stillman (2005) notes that, the mistakes were founded on the complex relationship existing between the internal decision-making behavior of NASA and its external environment.

According to Cabbage & Harwood (2009), the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which had been formed to investigate the disaster, had blamed the space shuttle’s accident on an enormous piece of foam that had fallen from its external tank thereby breaching the left wing of the spacecraft. It is worth noting that the problem of space shuttles with foam had been known to the NASA for years, something that had brought NASA under the intense scrutiny of the media, as well as the United States Congress for having allowed the situation to continue unabated. It is noted that approximately 82 seconds after the space shuttle left the ground, it had an enormous piece of foam falling from the bipod ramp that composed the structure that attached or connected the external tank to the body of the space shuttle. A video picture from the launch appeared to depict the foam striking the left wing of the space shuttle. It is worth noting that the Department of Defense had reported to be prepared to make use of the orbital spy cameras so as to have a better view of the breached wing. This offer was, however, declined by NASA officials. The investigations later revealed that the left wing developed a hole which allowed the bleeding of atmospheric gases into the space shuttle as it carried out its fiery re-entry. This resulted to the breakdown of communication between the astronauts and the base, just before the Columbia was lost. One would hope that the accident motivates NASA to undertake scrupulous attention to detail and ensure that such technical problems are resolved.

Such resolution, however, is dependent on the dedication and commitment pertaining to political forces external to NASA in exploring the space. On the same note, it is imperative that NASA ensures that its launch schedules are in line with the available resources. A report by CAIB also recommended that NASA gets more predictable political support and funding, which would also allow for replacement of the shuttle with an entirely new system of transportation (Cole& Cole, 2003). This notion is supported by Stillman (2005) who states that adequate resources have been affecting the capacity of NASA to cope with its launch schedule, as well as its commitment in safeguarding a robust safety organization.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) noted that NASA had organizational practices and cultural traits that allowed for the growth of practices that threatened the safety of space shuttles (Gehman et al, 2003).  According to the CAIB report, the increased shuttle engineering contracting had resulted in a reduction in the safety oversight carried out by NASA civil servants, not to mention the fact that the safety activities of fundamental system had been delegated to the contractors. The Human Space Flight Program had moved from an all-inclusive oversight inspection process to a comparatively limited insight process thereby reducing the mandatory inspection points by well over a half, as well as leaving fewer workers to undertake 2nd and 3rd shuttle system checks (Koestler-Grack, 2004). This was done in an effort to synchronize the inspection regime to the ISO 9000/9001 protocol. As the CAIB report noted, the operating assumption that the organization could reduce their responsibility for shuttle safety, and lower their direct involvement had its foundation on the mischaracterization of the 1995 Kraft Report that had indicated that the shuttle was a reliable and mature system (Koestler-Grack, 2004). It is worth noting that the increased awareness that characterized programs that were still being developed was replaced, based on the notion that may be reduced without compromising on the safety (Gehman et al, 2003). This, however, was flawed as increased dependence on contracting would make it necessary that NASA enhances its communication, as well as safety oversight processes rather than reducing them as had been done (Koestler-Grack, 2004). In this regard, NASA must incorporate effective leadership that enhances a risk-averse attitude, which would then be combined with trust and openness. This leadership should permeate into the appointments, where individuals who appreciate flight safety are incorporated in the management.

In addition, both CAIB and the Rogers Commission had found fundamental deficiencies in the oversight and communication functions. Under the United Space Alliance (USA) and Space Flight Operations Contract (SFOC), NASA is charged with the responsibility of managing the entire process of safeguarding the shuttle safety (Cabbage &.............

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