Launch of the space shuttle Columbia (Photo: GettyImages)
2003 was to be a busy year for the US space agency, NASA. With six space missions, five of them to expand the structure of the International Space Station. The first flight of that year, mission STS-107, was aboard the oldest space shuttle in service at the time, Columbia. Columbia was not intended to fly to the space station, but to perform a 16-day mission in space where the astronauts would perform missions in microgravity, in the space laboratory on Columbia's cargo deck. The seven astronauts, Brown, Clark, Chawla, Hezband, Anderson, McCall and the Israeli pilot, Col. Ilan Ramon, performed about 80 different scientific experiments, and surpassed in their performance what they had predicted and planned at the control center and the space center in Houston.
However, when Columbia landed, and re-entered the atmosphere, a disaster occurred, and the old Columbia shuttle crashed when the seven astronauts on board lost their lives in the crash.
Exactly one year has passed since February 1, 2003, and thousands of words have already been written about the terrible disaster, which originated from the failure of the shuttle body.
But precisely because of the significance of the failure, we set out to check: what did NASA learn from the Columbia disaster, and what is the American space agency doing so that a case like the Columbia crash does not happen again?
Exactly one year has passed since February 1, 2003, and thousands of words have already been written about the terrible disaster, which originated from the failure of the shuttle body (Photo: GettyImages)
First, let's remember: what happened?
After the successful launch of Columbia into space on January 16, 2003, during a routine analysis of the launch tapes, engineers noticed that about a minute and a half after launch, a piece of insulating foam broke free from an external tank of the shuttle, and hit its left wing.
On the eighth day of the mission, January 23, flight director Steve Stich from the control center in Houston informed mission commanders Hezband and McCool in an email about the impact, but also told them that such things had happened on previous missions, and there was no danger to the shuttle during atmospheric entry.
The band informed the rest of the team, and at the same time, a team on the ground continued to analyze the significance of the impact.
Their request for another photograph of the damage was rejected.
The astronauts completed their missions on January 31, while Zaband and McCool trained in a simulator to practice re-entry and landing as well as testing systems.
The next morning, they closed the hatches of the space lab, closed the cargo deck doors, put on the orange pressure suits designed for takeoff and landing, and took their seats.
Hezband, McCool, Chawla and Clark on the flight deck, while Brown, Anderson and Ramon on the mid-deck.
Zaband and McCall stabilized the shuttle with the engines of the orbital maneuvering system and after receiving the approval from the control center - activated the engines with the shuttle's nose facing forward and at an entry angle of 40 degrees, and began the re-entry at an altitude of approximately 122 kilometers above the earth's surface.
To slow down the speed, the Columbia pilots performed a series of maneuvers, and 15 minutes after the start of the return to the ground, at an altitude of 63 kilometers above Texas and only 16 minutes from the landing - contact with the shuttle was lost - which disintegrated into pieces in the air.
The astronauts completed their missions on January 31.
The late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon (Photo: GettyImages)
"Colombia is lost. There are no survivors."
90 minutes after the scheduled landing time, when it became clear that the Columbia had not landed and disaster struck, the flight director that morning, Leroy Kane, ordered the control room doors locked and all materials preserved for a full investigation.
Sean O'Keefe, the director of the space agency at the time, immediately convened an investigation committee that was named CAIB (Columbia Accident Investigation Board).
which was headed by Admiral (res.) Harold Gaman.
After five hours, then President George Bush Jr. issued a message of mourning: "My fellow Americans, this day brings terrible news and sadness to our country. Colombia is lost. There are no survivors."
At this point, rescue forces and authorities in Texas and Louisiana had already begun collecting the wreckage of the crashed shuttle over a large area, a process that took three months, during which only about 40 percent of the shuttle's body was collected.
In May 2003, after a series of hearings, tests and simulations simulating the impact on the wing, CAIB issued preliminary conclusions: the piece of foam that was released during the launch, hit and caused damage to the left wing panels, which were subjected to extreme pressures and heat during re-entry into the atmosphere, causing the entire wing to disintegrate from overheating, And that led to the ferry crashing.
In its final report, the committee criticized the organizational and safety culture at NASA, and reached conclusions similar to those of the investigation after the Challenger disaster in 1986, and that organizational lessons were not produced.
The Columbia disaster caused NASA to ground its entire fleet of shuttles until the future consequences of malfunctions and falling insulation foam to the shuttles' hulls became clear. NASA's space shuttles remained on the ground for almost three years after the disaster, until the launch of 114-STS, with the shuttle Discovery in July 2005. At that time, the president had already announced the vision he called for retiring the space shuttles upon completion of the construction of the space station, which indeed happened with the last shuttle flight, in July 2011.
The Columbia disaster caused NASA to ground its entire shuttle fleet. The shuttle disaster as televised (Photo: GettyImages)
From the "Columbia" disaster to the "Orion" body
In 2014, NASA launched "Orion", its new spacecraft, which recently completed a successful unmanned round trip to the moon, with the goal being to land astronauts there in the coming years, and from there to Mars. The lessons learned from the Columbia disaster had a great impact on The design of the new spacecraft, which is also intended for deep space exploration and long journeys in space.
Some of the lessons learned from the Columbia disaster are to give the astronauts a chance to survive and save themselves, even in the event of a malfunction or accident, which was not thought of at Columbia. The investigative committee found failures in the design of the crew cabin (cabin the passengers), including chairs, seat belts, the suits and the ventilation systems and life on the shuttle, and the engineers of the new space vehicle treated all of these with awe. This, not only because of the desire to take care of the next astronauts, but also because those who perished were acquaintances and friends. This was in their hearts.
For example, in contrast to what happened in Columbia, NASA drew inspiration from the chairs of racing drivers in the design of the "Orion". They provide full support for all parts of the body, and cushion and absorb shocks in the event of a crash. It reached a level where even the vibration frequency of the chairs was intended to which would be different from the frequency at which internal organs in our bodies beat to prevent damage.
Another weak point in Columbia was the seat belts. Here, NASA drew inspiration from the seat belts of car seats for toddlers, which were designed to fit a wide range of body structures - from women as short as 147 centimeters, to Tall men are 193 centimeters tall, a NASA engineer who led the "Survival Engineering" team in the design of the new spacecraft tells Space.com.
Wings - out, cone - none
The spacesuits were also completely redesigned.
The Columbia Disaster Commission of Inquiry found that the astronauts on Columbia did not have enough time to adapt their suits to the condition of loss of air pressure - a condition that worsened rapidly.
They did not have time to put on the protective gloves, some did not even have time to put on their helmets with the loss of air pressure on the crew deck.
The solution found for this is automation: in the event of a loss of pressure, the suits will inflate automatically, protecting the space pilots from the loss of pressure, without the need for manual actions on the part of the astronauts.
The ventilation systems on "Orion" have been upgraded, so that the crew will continue to enjoy a stable flow of oxygen, even when their helmet goggles are locked, which was not the case in Columbia.
Each and every one of these changes is designed to address the weaknesses and flaws that existed in the Columbia disaster.
Unfortunately, however, the engineer says that even if the defects had been addressed, it would not have changed the tragic outcome at the time.
"At the same time, we looked at the fatal events aboard the Columbia, and we addressed every one of the problems that there were...we did a great many things to make the voyage safer, and everything we learned from the shuttle accidents, the Russian space accidents, even the car accidents - We learned lessons from all of them, which we incorporated into "Orion", he concludes.
However, the biggest design change learned from the "Columbia" disaster, as well as the "Challenger" disaster before it, is in the general design of Orion: instead of a shuttle with wings Similar to an airplane, Orion's passenger cabin is cone-shaped, which sits at the top of the rocket, instead of being attached to its side, as they would do with the space shuttles. Thus, the passenger cabin is not exposed to the impact of parts that may fall out, which was what marked the fate of the Columbia.
The passenger cabin of "Orion" is cone-shaped, which sits at the top of the rocket: SpaceX spacecraft launch (Photo: GettyImages)
The new conical design and its placement at the top of the rocket instead of being attached to the side of the rocket body (which is also present in SpaceX's "Dragon"), also includes emergency thrusters that are installed at the bottom of the passenger cabin - and will allow "Orion" to quickly detach from the rocket and move away from it in the event of a malfunction or explosion during launch ( As happened to the "Challenger"), and become an escape pod that will land the crew safely - in contrast to the results of the terrible disaster that befell the American space agency and its people alongside the late Israeli space pilot Ilan Ramon, exactly today, 20 years ago.
The Columbia disaster