Space Shuttle Columbia Accident
June 20, 2005 6:47 AM   Subscribe

What is the best book/article you have read on the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident?
posted by msacheson to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I always thought this was a poor choice of words. "Accident" implies bad luck, where this was more a deliberate failure of engineering. Feyman's amazingly clear take on it is as much about American bureacracy and science, as it is about the Columbia tragedy.
posted by Rothko at 6:51 AM on June 20, 2005

err, not so much Rothko. That would be Challenger, not Columbia. That being said, the Columbia accident is also a failure of, if not engineering, then certainly bureacracy.
posted by atrazine at 7:00 AM on June 20, 2005

! My fault. Sorry.
posted by Rothko at 7:01 AM on June 20, 2005 has a fairly complete looking report on the whole thing.
posted by atrazine at 7:10 AM on June 20, 2005

Although this isn't an article of the accident itself, it does talk about the aftermath and search for debris. At the time my wife and I were working for FEMA and helped with the documentation of the accident. Off the top of my head I am aware of this press release... but there is a lot more out there. I have many public documents on a CD-ROM available if you would like to contact me via email.
posted by monsta coty scott at 7:12 AM on June 20, 2005

William Langewiesche wrote a brilliant article titled "Columbia's Last Flight" in the November 2003 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. It was available for free online for awhile; now it is only accessible to subscribers.

It is worth finding the issue and reading it. Fantastic article. Langewiesche was given broad access to the persons that investigated the disaster, and he wrote an in-depth article that explored space flight, the shuttle program, and the modern bureaucracy of NASA. You can read it here if you are a KeepMedia subscriber; if not, I think you can sign up for a trial membership and get access. The Atlantic link is here.
posted by AgentRocket at 7:15 AM on June 20, 2005

The official accident report is surprisingly readable - I had to look at it a while back for a university project.
posted by simonw at 8:18 AM on June 20, 2005

The Guardian reprinted William Langewische's article online, and as far as I can tell it's freely available. And yes, it's as good as AgentRocket implied. Part 1, Part 2.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:25 AM on June 20, 2005

If I had gotten here earlier, I too would have recommended the Langeweische article from the Atlantic.
posted by matildaben at 8:50 AM on June 20, 2005

Space Shuttle Columbia Infographics has links to a bunch of visual explanations of the accident.

Slate did an internet guide has links to various resources, including Gregg Easterbrook's 1980 essay Beam Me Out of This Death Trap, Scotty, written a year before Columbia's first launch.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:47 AM on June 20, 2005

Jame's Gleick's book on Feyman had good coverage. There was an engineering class at Utah Valley State College that examined the research and came up with some very plausible but different findings. I'll try to find the link and post it later, but I found that *very* interesting.
posted by craniac at 9:53 AM on June 20, 2005

simonw - thanks, I work at the consulting company that coordinated the creation of the CAIB report. You can download the PDFs here.

I'll look and see if I have any other work product on the CAIB that I can provide a pointer to.
posted by phearlez at 11:04 AM on June 20, 2005

err, not so much craniac.
posted by jjg at 11:11 AM on June 20, 2005

Just to follow up Rothko's Feynman post, in What do you care what other people think?, Feynman includes many anecdotes about the Challenger investigation and they're fascinating. The book has a few non-challenger sections, but the part about the accident takes up a substantial percentage. I believe the text in Rothko's link is in the appendix to the book.
posted by nomad at 7:55 PM on June 20, 2005

There are that many books on Columbia to choose from? The only serious one I know of is Comm Check, by veteran space journalists Michael Cabbage and William Harwood, which is praised by Amazon reviewers and others.

a deliberate failure of engineering

That's a pretty skewed way to look at it. The questions of engineering ethics and bureaucratic process that both accidents raise are remarkably similar, which is both unfortunate (for NASA, which at least struggles honestly to learn from its mistakes if it doesn't always succeed) and evidence of deep patterns and biases in modern professional classes.

The best book on Challenger is The Challenger Launch Decision by Diane Vaughan, which is appropriately dispassionate about reviewing each and every part of that decision, and not just the notorious one. I think there were human mistakes made that day, of course, but in a much larger sense there were institutional mistakes that NASA made, that we as American society made in selecting the space program that we have, and that any institution charged with a large project faces. When most people screw up, they get spanked for it. When engineers screw up, people die. The shuttle, a dam, a car tire ... we must learn to deal with the institutional rituals that lead to failure. Vaughan's book is a seminal work not just on engineering ethics but human factors design. Challenger or Columbia, I guarantee that you'll find this book fascinating. If I remember correctly, anyway, Langeweische cribbed from it for his Columbia article.

Unless it bores you. I confess parts of it did but I plowed through them.

One note about the Easterbrook article. I found it very interesting although not 100% convincing. Many spaceniks, especially in the newsgroups, consider the article a complete joke and muckraking journalism of the worst sort. If nothing else, reading it with that in mind gives you certain insights you won't get elsewhere.
posted by dhartung at 9:46 PM on June 20, 2005

Edward Tufte has graphical analysis of the decisions to launch both Columbia and Challenger; these graphics in particular illustrate the risk in launching at the expected launch temperature for Challenger. The engineers had the information necessary to persuade NASA to cancel the launch, but their visual presentation wasn't presuasive. Rebuttal [PDF]

NASA Shuttle Accident Briefing with imagery of Columbia's underside during reentry.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:46 AM on June 21, 2005

Sorry, they both start with a C
posted by nomad at 4:45 PM on June 22, 2005

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