Last week NASA released the Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, a comprehensive document detailing the Columbia shuttle tragedy of 2003 and ultimately concluding it was ‘not survivable’. At 400 pages it’s pretty beefy but I ran through it last weekend.
From a scientific or engineering viewpoint, I’m pretty staggered by the skills of the people involved in reconstructing what happened to the ship and her crew when she disintegrated upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The level of ingenuity and effort by the scientists and engineers is breathtaking. They’ve used telemetry, on board and ground based videos, ground impact locations, computer modelling, fluid dynamics, ballistics testing, pressure, load and temperature reconstruction/testing, voice communication records, forensic debris examination and every other trick in the book to work out a pretty accurate picture of how the disaster unfolded. When reviewing the report you can’t fail to be impressed by the dedication and effort that they have undertaken. After all, it can’t be easy to recreate what happened to an almost unique spacecraft that broke up at over 55000 metres above the Earth at Mach 15 with re-entry temperatures in the hundreds of degrees.
After all, where do you start when faced with thousands of burnt debris chunks scattered over hundreds of kilometres? It's a colossal effort.
The report has been edited to exclude specifics regarding the remains of the crew themselves. While this is the right thing to do and is completely necessary, I can't help but wonder from a scientific viewpoint what they found, what they were able to learn from the remains and what testing or analysis they used to draw up their conclusions.
While there have been losses in spaceflight before with Challenger being perhaps the highest profile mishap in 1986, each has been fairly unique and there are very little parallels to draw on with the Columbia accident. Challenger broke up during launch at 14600 metres with most of the wreckage lost over the ocean. Soyuz 11 depressurised killing the crew but the vehicle itself made it back to Earth safely and Apollo I caught fire on the launchpad. While there are many instances of planes braking apart in flight for various reasons, they don't do so at the altitude and speed experienced by Columbia. As the report itself states, the factors involved in a vehicle breakup at such extreme altitiude, temperature and pressure are largely unknown.
The real tradgedy is that like in the Challenger incident NASA management overruled the engineers who suspected something was wrong. That's fourteen astronauts killed and two spacecraft destroyed because the people at the top controlling the money don't want to listen to the guys with the slide-rules who build the vehicles and know what the limitations are.
Impressive though this report is, I hope I don't find myself reading another any time soon.