NASA revisits tale of three tragedies

Sandy Anderson, the widow of Columbia astronaut Michael Anderson, touches a memorial for the Columbia's crew at Arlington National Cemetery after its dedication on Feb. 2, 2004. She is flanked by astronaut Carlos Noriega on the left and astronaut Steve Robinson on the right.
Sandy Anderson, the widow of Columbia astronaut Michael Anderson, touches a memorial for the Columbia's crew at Arlington National Cemetery after its dedication on Feb. 2, 2004. She is flanked by astronaut Carlos Noriega on the left and astronaut Steve Robinson on the right.Nasa/bill Ingalls / NASA

NASA marks its saddest days of the year over the coming week, beginning with Thursday's 38th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts and set back America's rush to the moon by 21 months.

The week of triple tragedy continues with the 19th anniversary of the Challenger explosion on Friday and next Tuesday's second anniversary of the Columbia's disintegration. Each of those disasters killed seven astronauts and grounded the rest of the shuttle fleet for more than two years. NASA's human spaceflight program still hasn't fully recovered from Columbia's loss, but the agency is on track to resume shuttle flights in May.

To mark the occasions, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe will lead a "Day of Remembrance" ceremony at the space agency's headquarters at 2 p.m. ET Thursday, to be aired on NASA Television. Additional observances will be conducted at six other NASA centers Thursday, and Kennedy Space Center in Florida has scheduled a Columbia memorial service at 9:30 a.m. ET Tuesday at its visitor complex.

Catastrophes and challenges
At last year's remembrances, the crew members of Columbia and Challenger were memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery and even on Mars — and O'Keefe exhorted NASA employees to remember "every single day that the consequences of us not getting it right are catastrophic." That message is likely to be underlined this year.

During the current gap in shuttle flights, investigators have delved into the causes of the Columbia tragedy, just as their predecessors did for Apollo 1 and Challenger. After each of the three tragedies, causes were found and changes were made:

  • Apollo 1: The fire that broke out during a launch-pad test on Jan. 27, 1967, was caused by an electrical short circuit and fed by a high-oxygen atmosphere within the crew cabin. The three astronauts — Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White — were trapped inside the cabin due to a poorly designed escape hatch. As a result of the investigation, more than 1,000 changes were made in the command module's design.
  • Challenger: On the exceptionally cold morning of Jan. 28, 1986, gaps in the seals on Challenger's solid rocket boosters provided an opening for hot rocket exhaust to flare out and ignite the shuttle's liquid fuel tank, sparking a fiery explosion that blew the orbiter apart. All seven crew members — Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis and space teacher Christa McAuliffe — died in the fiery fall on Jan. 28, 1986. Shuttle components were redesigned and launch procedures were changed.
  • Columbia: Investigators say a piece of flying foam from the shuttle's fuel tank knocked a hole in the leading edge of Columbia's left wing during the shuttle's ascent, allowing hot gases to enter and destroy the shuttle from within during its re-entry 16 days later, on Feb. 1, 2003. The seven crew members — Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Israel’s Ilan Ramon — were all killed. The shuttle fuel tank has been redesigned, and new procedures provide more opportunities for inspection and backup, although there is still no proven method for fixing a Columbia-scale gap in the shuttle's skin.

In all three cases, NASA's management approach came in for as much criticism as the specific causes of each accident. During the Apollo days, the tendency to launch without resolving all the safety questions was called "go fever." After Challenger and Columbia, NASA was taken to task yet again for an overly lax attitude toward safety, made tragically clear in retrospect.

This time around, NASA says that it's addressing what the Columbia Accident Investigation Board called a "broken safety culture," and if top managers can't adjust, they'll have to go.

For all the parallels linking NASA's three tragedies, the aftermath of the Columbia's loss is subtly different: Apollo 1 caught fire at the very beginning of the Apollo program, and Challenger blew up toward the start of the shuttle program. After Challenger, the shuttle Endeavour was built to bring the shuttle fleet back to its full strength of four.

In contrast, NASA is not planning to build a replacement for Columbia. Rather, the Columbia tragedy brought home the message that the fleet's days were numbered.

The space initiative laid out by President Bush a year ago calls for the fleet to be retired by 2010, as soon as the international space station is completed. NASA would then create a new spaceflight system for going to the moon and beyond, most likely launched by expendable rockets such as the Delta 4, the Atlas 5 or even Europe's Ariane 5.

During this triple anniversary, NASA is looking ahead to a radically different future at least as much as it's looking back at past catastrophes, said Jay Barbree, NBC News' longtime Cape Canaveral correspondent.

"When NASA returned to flight following the Challenger disaster, the agency's mission was to get its space shuttle fleet back in Earth orbit," Barbree recalled. "Returning from Columbia’s loss, NASA's mission is not only making sure the shuttles fly until they get the international space station finished, but it now must get the new hardware built to return to the moon."

O'Keefe already has announced his resignation to make way for a new NASA administrator in the post-Columbia age, and the next four years will be crucial.

"With President Bush's re-election, the agency will have until 2008 to get its new lunar program so entrenched it will be difficult to undo," Barbree said. "In four years, the ‘return to the moon’ project should be sunk so deep in its foundation that nobody can pull it out."

The Apollo and Challenger tragedies — and NASA's response to those tragedies — showed that a strong vision for human spaceflight can sustain NASA's programs through even grave setbacks.

On the other hand, gaps in that vision can lead to a downward spiral. Barbree recalls the days between the end of Apollo and the beginning of the shuttle program, when "you couldn't sell a house down here." Similarly, some observers believe the repeated cutbacks in NASA's budget during the 1990s helped set the stage for the Columbia disaster.

This time around, Bush's plan calls for a boost in NASA spending. Barbree said workers around Cape Canaveral took heart from the latest round of budget negotiations, which provided the full amount requested for the space agency — $16.2 billion for the current fiscal year.

"It's not like it was before," Barbree said. "They know this is not the end."

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the time span since the Apollo 1 fire in 1967.