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The Columbia Tragedy: System Level Issues for Engineering

11/04/2003 4:00 PM 1-190
Sheila Widnall, '60, SM '61, ScD '64, MIT Institute Professor

Description: Among the "tragedy of errors" that doomed the space shuttle Columbia, perhaps the most damning were NASA's organizational blunders. Sheila Widnall served on the board investigating Columbia's destruction in February, 2003, and she can describe the technical failures that led, moment by moment, to the ghastly trail of debris across the western United States. But the investigation board traced the roots of this disaster to NASA's "culture of invincibility," years in the making. Well-intentioned people, Widnall states, became desensitized to deviations from the norm. NASA managers treated repeated anomalies -- such as foam smashing into shuttle tiles on take off -- as "maintenance turnaround events."

Foam striking protective tiles on the leading edge of Columbia's wing led to the horrors of re-entry: gases in excess of 5000 degrees F entered through a possibly 10-inch-wide breech in the wing, melting sensors and internal structure, sending the shuttle out of control. The failures that led to this moment, are both engineering system failures, and human communication failures.

Widnall and the investigation board recommend independent safety oversight for shuttle flights; NASA leadership that heeds minority points of view and doesn't let scheduling or budget pressures define space missions; and routine inclusion of engineers who have the right to address both technological and operational issues of a flight.

FURTHER READING:
For a recent article on the Columbia tragedy by William Langewiesche in The Atlantic Monthly, go to Columbia's Last Flight: The Inside Story of the Investigation and the Catastrophe it Laid Bare

Link to Transcript

About the Speaker(s): Sheila Widnall received her B.Sc. (1960), M.S. (1961), and Sc.D. (1964) in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT. She was appointed Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1986 and Institute Professor in 1998. She served as Associate Provost, Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1992-1993 and as Secretary of the Air Force from 1993-1997. Widnall stepped down from her position as Secretary of the Air Force on October 31, 1997 to return to her faculty position at MIT. Since returning to MIT, she has been active in the Lean Aerospace Initiative with special emphasis on the space and policy focus teams. Widnall is Vice President of the National Academy of Engineering and a member of the Executive Committee of the National Research Council of the National Academies. She is a trustee of the Sloan Foundation and the Institute for Defense Analysis. She has been a trustee of the Carnegie Corporation and Vice Chair of its Board, a consultant to the Macarthur Foundation, a Director of the Aerospace Corporation, Draper Laboratories, ANSER Corp., GenCorp, Inc., Chemical Fabrics Inc., and a trustee of the Boston Museum of Science, and a member of the Council, Smithsonian Institution of Washington. She was a member of the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. She is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Host(s): School of Engineering, Engineering Systems Division

Tape #: T17816

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

Category: Events | Updated over 2 years ago

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