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Challenger and Columbia Spaceflight Accidents Case Study


Accidents that occurred with Challenger and Columbia shuttles were tragic as they caused plenty of deaths that might be prevented in the case of appropriate safety measures, timely shuttle examination, and attentive management.


The mission of the Challenger was unusual to some extent as one of the crew members was a school teacher. Her task was to provide a lesson from the orbit. The press and the public lost interest in the NASA space program, and the teacher in space was to revive it. Nevertheless, the idea failed – January 28, 1986, the main TV channels showed only the first seconds of the start and switched to standard broadcasting. After a few minutes, they had to go on the air to report that the Challenger broke apart, and no one survived (“Challenger Disaster Live on CNN”).

The principal cause of the disaster was the leakage of gas through the connection elements of the solid booster. Problems with the integrity of joints have been known since the second flight of the Space Shuttle program during the STS-51-L mission. After the first case, engineers provided the following test: O-ring has been damaged intentionally stronger than before, and then it was subjected to the pressure that was three times more than the pressure in the working chamber (Mullane 57). The O-ring kept the pressure.

However, the test proved to be incorrect. Engineers understand the seriousness of the problem, but they lacked resources to investigate it in detail and eliminate it. Moreover, engineers stated that low temperature might worsen the problem of O-rings, and raised the issue of the transfer of the start date. Despite the warning, Challenger was activated in −13 °C (9 °F) while the recommended temperature was 11 °C (52 °F).

It should be stressed that astronauts died because of the impact on the water. For some unknown reason, the development of the Space Shuttle did not cover any system of salvation during the first two minutes of flight, namely, before the separation of solid boosters.

After the accident, NASA initiated measures to eliminate these disadvantages that lead to irreversible consequences. The design of the side accelerator has been changed. In particular, the third O-ring and elements increasing the stiffness of the compound were added. A rescue system suitable for the emergency escape of the whole shuttle was introduced.

The space shuttle program was suspended for thirty-two months. The Challenger was replaced by a new Endeavour shuttle. Series of cosmic accidents with unmanned boosters and an error in the design of the Hubble telescope overlapped on the Challenger disaster. It caused a serious crisis in NASA.

The crisis of the 1980s seemed to be overcome by 2003. A Columbia shuttle was flying with scientific missions delivering Space Hub module to the orbit and conducting various experiments. The immediate reason for the accident was damage to the leading edge of the wing caused by the blow of the insulating foam of the external tank (“Columbia” 51). The size and extent of the damage are not known as any of the engineers was concerned with the problem seriously. In spite of the possibility to prevent the damage using ground-based telescopes or spy satellites, it was not done. The problem of insulating foam impact was considered habitual and non-hazardous (Labib 184). Even the loss of communication did not cause concern. Houston was still trying to re-establish contact with the shuttle when one of the employees saw on TV the translation of the Columbia disintegration. The cause of the death of astronauts was the destruction of the orbiter at hypersonic speed.

Was it possible to save the crew of Columbia? It seems that there might be two possible scenarios. First, Atlantis shuttle that was on a high level of readiness for launch might provide their rescue without breaking test systems. In the case of failure of the first embodiment, the crew could perform a spacewalk to evaluate and attempt to fix the damage. One cannot say with certainty that the orbiter could be repaired, but any attempt would have been better than certain death.

The problem of insulating foam falling was solved only three years after the Columbia disaster. Only X-rays revealed refillable tank cracks that led to the falling of foam pieces. A special maneuver was added to prevent similar cases. The shuttle hovered and rolled over. At this time, the crew photographed the thermal protection tiles.

As a ramification of the Columbia accident, flights were stopped for twenty-nine months. In fact, the catastrophe of Columbia put an end to the Space Shuttle program. After this disaster, shuttles carried out only necessary missions for the Hubble repair. As a result, “the NASA study team is recommending 30 changes based on Columbia, many of them aimed at the spacesuits, helmets, and seatbelts” (“NASA Reports New Details of Columbia Deaths” par. 11).

Analyzed accidents provided several significant lessons.

– Inappropriateness in risk management could lead to a very unpleasant loss during the system operation. Therefore, it is necessary to develop risk management attentive to all the details (“Post-Challenger Evaluation of Space Shuttle Risk Assessment and Management” 79).

– The lack of safety measures for astronauts led to their death. Perhaps, there was a possibility to prevent it by means of high-quality safety standards.


In conclusion, Challenger and Columbia disasters clearly demonstrate the need to improve safety standards, employees’ management, and shuttle design to prevent potential accidents.

Works Cited

.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 2007.

“Columbia.” . PDF file. 2003.

Labib, Ashraf. Learning from Failures: Decision Analysis of Major Disasters, Amsterdam: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, 2014. Print.

Mullane, Mike. Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, New York, NY: Scribner, 2010. Print.

“NASA Reports New Details of Columbia Deaths.” NBC News. 2008.

.” National Academies of Science’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. 1988.

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"Challenger and Columbia Spaceflight Accidents." IvyPanda, 30 Aug. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/challenger-and-columbia-spaceflight-accidents/.

1. IvyPanda. "Challenger and Columbia Spaceflight Accidents." August 30, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/challenger-and-columbia-spaceflight-accidents/.


IvyPanda. "Challenger and Columbia Spaceflight Accidents." August 30, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/challenger-and-columbia-spaceflight-accidents/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Challenger and Columbia Spaceflight Accidents." August 30, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/challenger-and-columbia-spaceflight-accidents/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Challenger and Columbia Spaceflight Accidents'. 30 August.

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