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In February 2003, seven astronauts died as the space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry over Texas. The cause of the disaster was a briefcase-size chunk of foam that broke off during launch, damaging the shuttle’s thermal protection system — but the failings were deeper, and harked back to the nation’s first space disaster, when the shuttle Challenger exploded seconds after takeoff in 1986. According to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, “We are convinced that the management practices overseeing the Space Shuttle Program were as much a cause of the accident as the foam that struck the left wing.” In brief, according to the report, “By the eve of the Columbia accident, institutional practices that were in effect at the time of the Challenger accident — such as inadequate concern over deviations from expected performance, a silent safety program, and schedule pressure — had returned to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).” Poor communication of safety information, a culture that stifled professional differences of opinion, and a de-emphasis of sound engineering practices also contributed to an organizational failure that brought about the space shuttle tragedy, the report said. Years of cost-cutting and pressures to do more with less led NASA management to cut corners, investigators concluded. Ultimately, this led to a situation in which “mission management failed to detect weak signals that the Orbiter was in trouble and take corrective action.”

A NASA spokeswoman told the Center, “After the accident and before launching the next shuttle, NASA spent more than two years doing rigorous testing, engineering analysis, redesigns, and modifications to reduce or eliminate the issues that contributed to the Columbia accident.” A new Crew Exploration Vehicle is being developed that will eventually replace the remaining space shuttle orbiters.

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