Columbia: The Search for Answers
Report Blames NASA Culture, Management for Tragedy

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photo gallery Read the full investigation report.

photo gallery  See a photo gallery of Earth through Columbia's eyes.

NASA investigator Dan Bell measures a 16-inch hole seen in a carbon-reinforced wing panel removed from shuttle Atlantis after a 1.67-pound piece of fuel-tank foam insulation was shot out of a 35-foot nitrogen-pressurized gun and slammed into it during a test in San Antonio.
Photo: James Lenamon, KXAS-TV Dallas-NBC/Copyright 2003 Reuters Limited

Columbia's Crew

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Columbia's crew, on their way to the launch pad. Front, from left to right: Kalpana Chawla, William "Willie" McCool, Rick Husband. Back, left to right: Ilan Ramon, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark and David Brown.
Photo: NASA

Listen NPR's Brenda Wilson profiles the Columbia crew.

Streaks in sky above Texas
Streaks across the sky Feb. 1, 2003, above Dallas, Texas show multiple tracks from the disintegrating Columbia.
Photo: James Lenamon, KXAS-TV Dallas-NBC/Copyright 2003 Reuters Limited

Aug. 26, 2003 -- An independent panel investigating the Feb. 1, 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident has released its final report on the causes behind the disaster. The report agrees with preliminary findings that a piece of insulating foam fatally damaged Columbia's wing, causing the shuttle to break apart as it returned to Earth, killing all seven crewmembers. But as NPR's David Kestenbaum reports, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board also finds that NASA's management and culture were equally responsible.

The report lists 15 immediate changes NASA must make before it launches another shuttle. Five of these had been released previously. The new recommendations -- for instance, NASA should strengthen the heat shielding on shuttle wings -- are unlikely to delay the space agency, which hopes to launch again in March or April.

The report repeatedly asks why no one realized how much damage the insulating foam could do. During the shuttle's launch, cameras recorded a chunk of foam breaking off from the fuel tank and striking Columbia's left wing. NASA managers had recorded similar foam strikes during previous launches and didn't consider them a safety risk. But a test in July replicated the strike, showing the foam capable of tearing a giant hole in the wing. During Columbia's re-entry, heat entered the shuttle through the hole, melting the wing from the inside out and causing the orbiter to break apart.

The investigation board concludes that because foam strikes were common, but had not caused serious problems on previous flights, people stopped paying attention -- a flaw in NASA's safety teams.

The report also lists a number of other factors that may have contributed to the accident, including resource constraints, fluctuating priorities, schedule pressures and lack of an agreed national vision for human space flight.

Read the full CAIB report.

More about the investigation at the CAIB's Web site

In Depth

photo gallery Critics say NASA must clarify its space exploration goals. NPR's Joe Palca reports. Aug. 25, 2003.