Mourning Columbia the Wrong Way

written by David Mixson

Yesterday, I visited a traveling exhibit with pieces from the Space Shuttle Columbia that broke apart on reentry in 2003. An engineer at KSC came up with the idea for the exhibit as a way to remind NASA engineers of the dangers of manned spaceflight.

My mind felt heavy on my drive home that evening.

Over the next several days, I processed through the emotions. I was deeply moved. I was thankful for the men and women willing to risk it all by getting on top of rocket ships filled with explosives. I couldn’t help but think about the astronauts who lost their lives—and their families.

A Powerful Reminder

The exhibit was a powerful reminder of what can happen. But I couldn’t help but wonder if it sent the right message.

NASA hasn’t been able to muster the means to design and fly a new launch vehicle since the Shuttle was retired in 2011, nearly a decade ago. Could it be that NASA is too cautious and afraid? Does this exhibit add value or make things worse?

The Wrong Perspective

I believe we’ve made a huge mistake in how we look at the Shuttle program. Instead of celebrating the 133 successful missions and honoring the 300+ men and women who flew, it feels like we focus on the two missions that failed.

When I saw the exhibit for the first time, I immediately thought to myself that someone on the NASA leadership team would use this exhibit as a starting point to encourage folks to speak up when they see something that concerns them. I think we’ve heard that enough already.

The Wrong Mindset

A documentary (or exhibit) rehashing the Shuttle disasters doesn’t inspire our youth. Launching a red Tesla into outer space does. So does launching humans into space—which is something Old Space NASA hasn’t done from American soil in a long time. Maybe there’s a correlation?

Focusing on the best that can happen inspires us. Focusing on the worst that can happen cripples and restricts. One comes from a mindset of abundance. The other comes from a mindset of scarcity.

One makes me ponder the possibilities of life outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The other creates fear, indecision, and tiger teams to go off and study problems—which ultimately leads to more paper rockets.

One makes me want to study engineering in school so I can be a part of something bigger than myself. The other makes me want to play video games in my room by myself so I’ll never be a part of something that takes a life.

Columbia’s Legacy

Is this how the crew onboard Columbia would want to be remembered?

We shouldn’t be mourning their deaths. We should be celebrating their lives. We should be telling stories about good things they did on Earth. We should be explaining to our kids why they thought space travel was important enough to risk it all.

Anything less is a disservice to the lost crew—and to their families.

Worshipping the failures of Shuttle overshadows its successes. It’s not fair to the engineers who designed it, who got it ready to fly, who made the engineering decisions that she was ready to launch, who launched it—and who operated it in flight.

Engineering Decisions

Every mission that blasted off into space had risks and imperfections that required managers to make hard decisions—a controller that had a spike during testing, a tank that had a tool dropped on it, an o-ring that delaminated and had to be repaired.

A failure of one of the liquid rocket motors was always a potential failure mode because they were operating at their material limits. Any failure would have likely been catastrophic.

Yet we flew the Shuttle anyway and never had a turbine failure. We could have easily let this one material property limitation keep us from flying a single time.

If NASA waited for perfect, we would never leave the ground. Everyone who signs up to fly into space knows the risks. This is why astronauts are heroes and not victims when something goes wrong.

Program Decisions

A note on the back of the Columbia exhibit read:
“Everyone that touches a mission, on every level, is responsible for what it represents and the lives that are involved.”

I’ll take that a step further. The program managers who stood up and cast a vote at the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) as to whether the Shuttle was ready, imperfections and all, had it hardest. It’s not even close.

These program managers and chief engineers should be thanked for their service instead of rejected for their mistakes—shame on us.

With our current risk culture, it’s no wonder so many engineers don’t want to be program managers. Hindsight is always 20/20—and they know if something goes wrong, they’ll be the focus of a Netflix documentary, a touring exhibit—or even worse, a congressional inquiry.

Moving Forward

Focusing on NASA’s failures has gotten out of hand. In response to this, I propose that every exhibit that shows the worst that can happen during space flight should be accompanied by images that show some of the best things that can happen—landing on the moon, putting up satellites that make GPS possible, and releasing the Hubble Space Telescope.

Every exhibit that shows a failure should also be accompanied by a photo of a kid watching something launch into space for the first time.

The awe on their face would serve as a reminder that the losses in our past weren’t in vain—and that not having the stomach to launch (even with quantifiable imperfections) is never good enough.

If our purpose is to avoid losing human life at all costs, maybe we should just stay home and never leave Earth. If our mission is to explore places far away, we need to spend more energy focusing on the possibilities.

More Excuses

Here’s another consequence of all this attention to failures. Reminiscing about Challenger and Columbia has made us feel better about our inability to design a new Old Space launch vehicle to carry astronauts into space from American soil.

We tell ourselves, “This is why we need to go slowly.”
We think, “What’s so bad about deferring that decision.”
We tell folks, “See, what we do is hard.”

In the case of Challenger, we thank God that we didn’t have anything to do with the decision to launch when it was cold. In the case of Columbia, we thank the heavens above that we didn’t have anything to do with the decision to ignore a foam strike. Then, we politely point our fingers at the managers and engineers who did in judgment.

Tough Decisions

My point here is that there needs to be a balance in all this. Either we have the stomach to send humans into space, or we don’t. Absolutely, we should do everything possible not to make poor engineering decisions that risk life. But we’ve taken it too far.

The organization that sent men to the moon fifty years ago is paralyzed with fear that something bad might happen again—and fear inspires no one. In the end, an infatuation with the failures of our past does little to lead us into a bright future.

An Amazing Tribute

Astronaut Butch Wilmore spoke at the unveiling of the Columbia exhibit and gave the perfect speech. He told a story about each of the seven crew who never made it home that day. Each story felt personal and warm.

“The first thing that pops into my mind when I think about the STS-107 crew,” Butch said, “is that they laughed all the time.”

“They all enjoyed life—and they all knew the risks.”

Butch paused for a movement and made strong eye contact with the audience before continuing in a slow, methodical voice.

“We all know the risks. But we chose to do it anyway.”

Butch got emotional as he wrapped things up:

“The thing that bothers me the most is that the crew onboard Columbia had stories to tell that they never got a chance to tell.”

Butch paid tribute to the lost crew in a magical way on that day that honored them individually. That’s the way I long to be remembered. Nothing more. Nothing less.

A Real Story

Several years ago, I rode a motorcycle from Alabama to Alaska and back with my best friend, Mike. Before I left, I told my wife, Sue, that if something bad happened to me (and a motorist was at fault), I didn’t want her to go after the driver.

“Sue, I understand there are risks. But I want to do it anyway.”

If I had died in a motorcycle crash on the ride to Alaska, I wouldn’t have wanted my family and friends to make it their life’s calling to destroy the driver who made a mistake and killed me.

Instead, I would want them to celebrate my life and focus on the fact that I was living a dream by doing it. I imagine the crews on Challenger and Columbia left this Earth living a dream, too.

Final Thoughts

And let’s not forget that our country had 133 successful Shuttle launches and landings. I’ll unpack that in a future article. In the end, every astronaut who risked it all should be celebrated as an adventurer and hero—whether they died doing it or not.

Read Next

About the Author

David Mixson writes about Old Space and New Space. He worked as an engineer at NASA for more than thirty years and is the author of three books.

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