The Columbia space shuttle disintegrated on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere in February of 2003. The astronauts on board had completed a two week mission and were returning home. The program was halted for the next couple of years while the disaster was investigated. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board reported on what if found to be the cause of the tragedy. After take-off a piece of insulation foam fell off and hit the external fuel tank and left wing. The damage to the wing's thermal protection was unknown. On re-entry the heat caused the aluminum airframe structure to melt, causing the explosion. The report listed other factors contributing to this accident including organizational problems. How NASA presented technical information in its briefings was found to be ineffective even damaging.
For a shuttle mission to succeed it depends on a team of planners, engineers and support staff. Planning and rehearsing every detail of the schedule is a must. Risk is assessed for every possible problem and backup plans created. NASA's space centers organize, monitor and control each mission with military precision. But reduction of personnel and internal pressure to launch on time caused safety issues to be neglected.
Absence of Success
A video clip and report was sent to Boeing engineers when the foam tile strike occurred during the launch. Boeing requested a satellite image of the wing, but never received it. Without pictures, they created a computer modeling tool, 'Crater', to predict how the damage would affect Columbia during re-entry. In January, the team presented its findings. Had NASA taken the view that the damaged left wing threatened re-entry, it could' have used either of two fallback plans to save the crew of Columbia. Boeing's engineers calculated some heating damage on re-entry, but they were inconclusive on whether this would lead to structural failure. They believed Columbia would survive re-entry. The mission was allowed to continue. (Disaster, 2008)
NASA had made a bad decision. The accident investigation report infers that the engineers' doubts and concerns not being effectively communicated to NASA's management. The wrong reporting tool was used to convey technical data.
Open discussion of concerns was not encouraged and this resulted in failure to properly investigate issues. Senior executives did not encourage input from the lower-ranking engineers. The engineers saw potential danger from a foam strike to the Columbia. The minutes and audiotapes of NASA's Mission Management Team reveal little discussion other than...