Wednesday, February 01, 2023


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

20 years ago today, Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry over Texas, 16 days after a piece of insulation detached from the external tank on ascent and punched a hole in the leading edge of the left wing.

As we learned in the wake of the Apollo 1 fire in 1967 and the loss of Columbia’s sister ship, Challenger, in 1986, it wasn’t just engineering that killed the crew.

Human factors, specifically the normalization of foam loss following earlier flights and the suppression of risk as flight after flight suffered hits, yet returned safely, turned what should have been a manageable design challenge into a death sentence for those who flew her.

Just over three years ago, I stood quietly beside the pieces of wreckage from both Challenger and Columbia on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center. I sadly realized the lessons from the earlier losses were clearly not learned or applied prior to the later ones. We failed to learn from history.

I have no doubt Columbia’s story weighs heavily on the managers designing the flying today’s SpaceX, Artemis, and (soon) Starliner missions. But humans have a funny habit of being imperfect, and I reluctantly accept that future missions will end in tragedy, as well.

It is the price we pay for pushing the state-of-the-art, for striving for more. Because the price of staying on the ground is far higher.

May their memories forever be a blessing and an inspiration.

Ad astra per aspera.

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