The aftermath

Following guidelines set up after the Challenger disaster, an expert committee, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, was immediately established to discover what had gone wrong. It took some time to conclude that a piece of lightweight foam had indeed doomed the spacecraft, but debris collected from along the re-entry path soon revealed the story of Columbia's break-up in detail. When the Shuttle's black box flight recorder was found, it confirmed that the trouble had started on the left wing.

Once again the Shuttle fleet was grounded for modifications, and once again the verdict on NASA management was damning - but this time the effects went further. Construction of the International Space Station (ISS) ground to a halt (see p.296), and NASA had to rely on Russian launches to keep the station crewed and supplied.

In the longer term, the loss of a second orbiter was too much for the Shuttle programme to bear - it was now clear that a large spacecraft strapped alongside its fuel tank and boosters was vulnerable to accidents that would not affect other vehicles. In economic terms, the problems were even clearer - the development of rival rockets and commercialisation of the launch market, coupled with the Shuttle's relatively slow launch rate, had already made it clear that the Shuttle would never undercut the competition. After Challenger,; most routine satellite launches, even for NASA missions, had returned to unmanned rockets, with the Shuttle reserved for more ambitious tasks. Columbia decided the issue, and in January 2004, President Bush announced that the Shuttle would be retired as soon as its construction work on the ISS was complete. It was the end of an era for manned spaceflight.


The break-up of Columbia scattered debris across a large swathe of the southern United States. Accident investigators collected as much as possible and, applying the some technique used with other air crashes, laid the pieces onto an outline of the orbiter marked out inside one of the hangars at Kennedy Space Center.

16 January 2003

With its planned launch delayed 18 times over a two-year period, Columbio finally lifts off on the STS-107 mission to conduct microgravity and Earth science research.

17 January 2003

Routine analysis of launch images reveals a large chunk of debris from the ET support strut potentially striking the Shuttle's left wing.

19 January 2003

Engineers requests for an emergency spacewalk to inspect the Shuttle's wing are ignored by NASA.

22 January 2003

Requests from NASA engineers for Department of Defense technology to image the Shuttle in orbit are withdrawn by NASA management.

1 February 2003

Columbio disintegrates on re-entry to Earth's atmosphere. The crew of Kalpana Chawla, llan Ramon, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, David Brown, and Rick Husband are all killed. All Shuttle flights are suspended.

26 August 2003

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board issues its report.


When the Shuttle returned to space again in July 2005, NASA had a far more cautious attitude. Tiles in vital areas would now be inspected in space, either during a spacewalk, or using a new camera attached to the robot arm. Despite all the safety improvements, though, checks during Discovery's initial return to flight mission revealed that there were still minor problems with the tiles and gave the astronauts onboard a chance to test new techniques for carrying out in-orbit repairs.


This spectacular close-up of the Space Shuttle Discovery's tail section was taken from the International Space Station. The rear of the Shuttle is covered in rocket nozzles, including the main engines, the smaller OMS engines used in orbit, and the RCS attitude adjustment thrusters.


In this test launch of the Europa launch vehicle at Woomera in 1966, only the lower stage (modified from Blue Streak) is active - the rest of the rocket and a satellite onboard are dummies.


Representatives of the ten ESRO member states sign the new European Space Agency into being. ESA formally took over ESRO and ELDO operations on 31 May 1975.

20 March 1964

ESRO and ELDO come into existence.

4 June 1964

The first test launch of the Europa project, firing a Blue Streak missile at Woomera, is successful.

14 November 1966

A test launch of the modified Europa first stage with dummy upper stages succeeds.

4 August 1967

In the first test of Europa with an active second stage, the upper stage fails to ignite.

3 October 1968

The first European satellite, ESRO 1A, reaches orbit on a NASA Scout B rocket.

12 June 1970

After a string of accidents, the last Europa launch from Woomera fails to deploy a satellite when the payload shroud jams.

5 November 1971

A final Europa launch from Kourou fails due to a guidance problem in the third stage. The project is suspended for review, then cancelled.


In this test launch of the Europa launch vehicle at Woomera in 1966, only the lower stage (modified from Blue Streak) is active - the rest of the rocket and a satellite onboard are dummies.

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