2003: Columbia Space Shuttle Explosion 151
AN ENGINEERING PERSPECTIVE
Rodney Rocha was chief engineer in the shuttle structural engineering
division.When, during a phone call on Friday, January 17 (the day after liftoff),
he learned of loose foam striking the left wing of the shuttle, he gasped. All
weekend, he watched a video loop showing the strike. Five days after liftoff,
he was one of 30 engineers from NASA and its contractors holding the first
formal meeting to assess potential damage. However, after replaying the video
several times, they could not determine the strike’s severity because of the
camera angle. So Rocha was elected to ask shuttle mission managers for access,
perhaps from American spy satellites, of images of the impacted wing area.
Two other engineers also made similar requests.All requests were denied.
Manager of the shuttle engineering office Paul Shack e-mailed Rocha, “I’m
not going to be Chicken Little about this. Rocha’s e-mail response back to
Shack included the sentence “In my humble technical opinion, this is the
wrong (and bordering on irresponsible) answer.
Rocha continued to discuss his concerns with other colleagues, including
Calvin Schomburg. Schomburg was an expert on heat-resisting tiles, who
believed that because other foam strikes were inconsequential on previous
flights, the current flight must also be safe. Schomburg’s opinion had been
reassuring to shuttle managers (Glanz, 2003). Beginning the weekend after
the launch, a group of Boeing engineers began a mathematical analysis of the
strike, working to estimate the foam debris size and its strike damage. When
this inexperienced group of mathematical modelers incorrectly concluded
that there no “safety of flight” risk (NASA, 2003), Rocha decided to go along
with this decision because he “just wasn’t being supported” and he “had faith
in the abilities of our team. However, he continued to feel anxious about the
strike. Rocha watched in horror from the engineering monitoring center as
the shuttle landing went awry on February 1 (Glanz, 2003).
REFERENCES
Feynman, R. P., Personal observations on the reliability of the shuttle. In Report of the
Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, vol. 2, appendix F.
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986. http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/
genindex.htm.
Glanz, J., and Schwartz, J., Dogged engineer’s effort to assess shuttle damage: a record of
requests by experts, all rejected. NY Times,A1, September 26, 2003.
National Aeronautics Space Administration, Report of the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2003.
http://www.nasa.gov/columbia/home/CAIB_Vol1.html.
National Aeronautics Space Administration National Space Transportation System, Space Shuttle
Program Description and Requirements Baseline. NSTS-0700, vol. 1, book 1. Houston, TX:
NASA, 1973.
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