Monday, February 01, 2021

Remembering Columbia - 18 years later

Merritt Island, FL
December 2019
This photo originally shared on Instagram

Space Shuttle Columbia broke up in the skies over Texas 18 years ago today. Just over a year ago, I stood beside her sister ship, Atlantis, and focused on the leading edge of the port-side wing.

The accident was caused by superheated gases leaking into the wing through a hole in the leading edge that had been opened up soon after launch, 16 days earlier, when foam insulation from the external tank detached and was accelerated by the slipstream into the reinforced carbon carbon (RCC) panel - specifically RCC panel #8, the one just aft of the kink on the black underbody tiles.

As Columbia slammed back into the atmosphere on re-entry, those gases entered the wing and summarily destroyed it from the inside. The telemetry later showed how Columbia's automated systems fought the progressing damage in a desperate bid to maintain control. But the mortally wounded ship ultimately disintegrated amid forces well in excess of her design limits.

I stared for a while at this spot on Atlantis, musing about the power of a relatively small-ish chunk of material little removed from the cooler you took on your last picnic, and how under the right conditions it was able to create a fatal hole in a particularly vulnerable spot. A sophisticated flying machine done in by an embarrassingly simple sequence of events.

We all have our Achilles heels, after all. And all engineering is a compromise, built on top of mathematically modeled risk profiles that quite literally govern who lives and who dies.

I suppose we could have forced the risk to zero by not allowing Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour to ever leave planet Earth. But like a vessel destined to sail the oceans, that's not what these ships were built for.

Safe harbor doesn't move us forward, and those who flew these great ships took on these risks so the rest of us would benefit.

Thank you seems more than a little inadequate.

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