- Columbia: Space Shuttle Disaster
No flight that takes its crew from zero to Mach 24 in a matter of minutes can truly be called “routine,” but STS-107 – the 107th mission of the space shuttle program, flown in late January 2003 – came close. Like dozens of shuttle missions before it, STS-107 was devoted entirely to science. As mission commander Rick Husband and pilot Willie McCool monitored Columbia’s around-the-world in-90-minutes orbit, the other five members of the crew carried out eighty different experiments in the laboratory modules bolted into its payload bay. There would be no spacewalks, no docking with the International Space Station, and no need for the fifty-foot robot arm, which had been left behind to save weight. Even the chunks of insulating foam shed by the she external fuel tank at liftoff seemed (at the time) routine. Every shuttle flight had suffered “foam loss” at launch and returned to Earth with small dings and gouges in the tiles of its heat shield.
Sixteen minutes before its scheduled landing in Florida, as Columbia streaked through the Earth’s atmosphere over New Mexico, things began to go terribly wrong. Air, heated to 1600 degrees Celsius by the friction of reentry, penetrated the leading edge of the left wing where a two-pound block of insulating foam had struck, and cracked, the carbon-fiber heat shield. Columbia’s slow death was foretold by failing sensors, marked by the loss of all communication, and confirmed by observers in Texas who watched a cloud of debris trail flame across the sky. Flight director Leroy Cain quietly told his team at Mission Control: “Lock the doors . . . no calls outside this room . . . prepare to preserve your data.”
The Columbia disaster seemingly has less to offer a would-be filmmaker than the Challenger disaster seventeen years earlier. There is no close-up footage of the shuttle’s final moments, no dramatic late-night argument over whether or not to launch, and no obvious figure (like teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe on Challenger) for viewers to identify with. Columbia: Space Shuttle Disaster, an installment in the long-running PBS science series Nova, turns these challenges into advantages. It makes no effort to profile the seven members of the crew (preferring to make Columbia its principal “character”) and resists the tendency to show the accident itself over and over. Instead, it devotes most of its running time to setting the disaster firmly in context. Relying heavily on interviews with expert commentators, it shows how Columbia and her crew fell victim to a combination of bad design [End Page 88] decisions made at the dawn of the shuttle program, NASA’s privileging of flight schedules over safety, and senior managers’ hobbling of their own engineers’ efforts to assess the severity of the foam strike.
An interview-driven film about the causes of a disaster could, if handled badly, be deadly dull, but Columbia: Space Shuttle Disaster is nothing of the kind. The on-screen commentators are an all-star cast of experts on the shuttle program and eyewitnesses to the disaster. Roger Launius, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, explains the design compromises that resulted from the shuttle program’s troubled early history. Story Musgrave, veteran of six shuttle flights, describes what it feels like to go from ground to orbit in eight minutes, “shaking so hard you think you’re going to lose your teeth.” CBS News reporter Bill Harwood recalls the text message that – as he waited for Columbia to land at Kennedy Space Center – confirmed the worst. Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Douglas Osterhoff, a member of the commission that investigated the disaster, explains how a two-pound piece of plastic foam could knock a hole in the leading edge of Columbia’s wing: a theory so counter-intuitive that senior NASA engineers initially refused to believe it. Rodney Rocha and Scott Hubbard, two of the engineers who did suspect that a “foam strike” might...