Douglas Osheroff

Understanding the Columbia Shuttle Accident


Abstract

On February 1, 2003, the NASA space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry over East Texas at an altitude of 200,000 feet and a velocity of approximately 12,000 mph. All aboard perished. The speaker was a member of the board that investigated the origins of this accident, both physical and organizational. In his talk he will describe how the board was able to determine with almost absolute certainty the physical cause of the accident. In addition, the speaker will discuss its organizational and cultural causes, which are rooted deep in the culture of the human spaceflight program. Why did NASA continue to fly the shuttle system despite the persistent failure of a vital sub-system that it should have known did indeed pose a safety risk on every flight? Finally, the speaker will touch on the future role humans are likely to play in the exploration of space.


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