Ten years after the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart at the tail end of a 16-day mission, killing all seven people aboard, NASA officials have revealed that it knew of a potential for disaster, but chose not to inform the crew.
Faced with the terrible decision over whether to let the astronauts know of the high risk for disaster upon re-entry or face orbiting in space until the oxygen ran out, ABC News reports that high-ranking officials instead chose to keep them in ignorance, sparing the victims a frightful experience.
Video of Columbia’s initial takeoff showed that a “briefcase-sized” chunk of foam broke off the shuttle’s engine and damaged a protective tile, leaving the craft vulnerable to its eventual demise.
Several NASA crew members apparently recognized the damage, but came to the difficult conclusion there would be no way to fix it before the shuttle was supposed to return. The ship was too far from the International Space Station and had no mechanisms for repair. A rescue shuttle would have taken too long to prepare.
And so, as the eventual shuttle program manager, Wayne Hale, wrote on his blog:
After one of the MMTs (Mission Management Team) when possible damage to the orbiter was discussed, he (Flight Director Jon Harpold) gave me his opinion: ”You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS (Thermal Protection System).’
‘”If it has been damaged it’s probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?”‘
As history would have it, all seven astronauts – David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon – died within within of breaking apart, all without any sense of impending disaster.
Harrowing video from inside the shuttle shows the crew calm and joking around just before disaster struck.
Following the 2003 diaster, NASA suspended flights for two years. Eventually, the shuttle program was retired in 2011.
The children of the victims will participate in a tenth anniversary memorial today at the Kennedy Space Center.
UPDATE: Hale tweeted last night:
Sensationalist media have misunderstood someof my blog posts and now I get to try to clean up the mess. Oy vey!
— Wayne Hale (@waynehale) February 1, 2013
It appears as though the blog post flagged by ABC News and The Daily Mail was expressing Hale’s recollection of a “hypothetical” situation in which the team would have to decide whether to tell the Columbia crew of a potential disaster.
We’ve reached out to Hale for further clarification.
[h/t The Daily Mail]
Editor’s note: This post has been edited since its original posting – Jon Nicosia
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