150 Engineering Ethics: An Industrial Perspective
physics Nobel prize winner Dr. Richard Feynman about shuttle safety
during the Rogers commission still rang true: “When playing Russian
roulette, the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the
next” (Feynman, 1986). In NASA’s conflicting goals of cost, schedule, and
safety, safety came in third.
The board made 29 return-to-flight recommendations. The topics covered
by these recommendations included the thermal protection system, imaging
of the flight, orbiter sensor data, wiring, hardware bolt catchers, foam hand-
spraying procedure, debris, scheduling, training, organization, recertification,
and photo/drawing documentation (NASA, 2003). A recurrent theme in the
recommendations was required correction of flawed practices embedded in
NASA’s organizational system that contributed to both explosions.
NASA’s original schedule for the first space shuttle flight after the
Columbia disaster was postponed from May to July 2005. Discovery flew
on July 22, 2005, even though a NASA panel determined that NASA had
not fully met the three most challenging of the board’s recommendations.
The unresolved issues include development of tile and panel repair kits
and measures to eliminate all shedding of debris from the external fuel
tank (Schwartz, 2005). During the July 22 launch, insulating foam again
separated from the external tank.
APPLICABLE REGULATIONS
During the early days of the space shuttle program, foam loss was
considered dangerous. Design engineers were extremely concerned about
potential damage to the orbiter and its fragile thermal protection system,
as reflected in shuttle system and external tank requirement specifications
(NASA, 2003):
3.2.1.2.14 Debris Prevention: The Space Shuttle System, including
the ground systems, shall be designed to preclude the shedding of ice
and/or other debris from the Shuttle elements during prelaunch and
flight operations that would jeopardize the flight crew, vehicle, mission
success, or would adversely impact turnaround operations. (NASA, 1973)
3.2.1.1.17 External Tank Debris Limits: No debris shall emanate from
the critical zone of the External Tank on the launch pad or during
ascent except for such material that may result from normal thermal
protection system recession due to ascent heating. (NASA, 1980)
Unfortunately, even with these specifications in place, the inaugural 1981
flight of the Columbia sustained damage from debris, causing 300 tiles to be
replaced.
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