Was NASA right to not carry out an investigation?

On January 16th 2003 NASA launched the Space Shuttle Columbia with seven astronauts aboard on a sixteen day mission. Eighty-two seconds into launch a piece of foam broke off from the external tank and struck the left wing, this was a common occurrence but the engineers were concerned that the size of the foam was greater than had been seen before and that the Thermal Protection System (TPS) could have been critically damaged which would have caused the shuttle to burn up on re-entry. It was unclear whether the damage was serious and despite several requests by the engineers for high quality photo’s in order to perform an investigation they were rejected by NASA. Was NASA right to not carry out an investigation?

Argument AGAINST conducting further investigations

NASA managers are concerned with every aspect of the mission and must take into account financial implications and the success of the mission, on top of the welfare of astronauts. Whereas the engineers were primarily concerned with determining the extent of the damage due to the foam strike and the possible effects this would have upon the safety of the shuttle and the astronauts. So the problem is not as simple as determining if the engineers were wrong to question the integrity of the shuttle, which is obvious, but rather if this warranted the detrimental impact that this would have on the rest of the mission.

Foam shedding and the resulting damage is a regular occurrence during shuttle flight, happening on sixty-five of the seventy-nine flights where it was detectable and only ever causing minor “divots” in the TPS. As well as this, launch readiness reports stated that it was safe to fly with foam losses, with both NASA engineers and managers regarding foam strikes as inevitable and unlikely to jeopardise the shuttle. NASA made use of the software program CRATER which predicted that the TPS could withstand the impact, even though the software had many limitations that the managers were unaware of. Therefore it would be reasonable for the managers to consider the risk of serious damage to be low.

In order to take the required photographs for further investigation difficult positioning of the shuttle was required at great costs. Even if damage had been found then NASA would not be able to remedy the situation with no in-orbit means to repair the TPS, and the orbit of the shuttle made it impossible for the astronauts to make it to the safety of the International Space Station. A rescue mission could have been possible but due to time constraints, the costs and risks associated with it would have been severe, making it undesirable.  

A utilitarian point of view would suggest further investigation was not worth it because it would incur large costs to NASA, taxpayers and sponsors with little chance of benefit to the welfare of the astronauts. If a rescue mission were to be launched this would only result in risk to further lives and even more costs, hence supporting the case for not carrying out the further investigation. Even if the further investigation had been carried out, would the astronauts want to know the results?

Argument FOR conducting further investigations

There are multiple ethical theories that could be used that would lead to the engineer’s request for further investigation being granted and would have led to a more positive situation than the burn up of the shuttle on re-entry.

As well as the stakeholders stated in the previous argument, the astronauts and their families also play an important role in the decision. The astronauts have accepted that they work in an extremely dangerous environment, however they will want to avoid injury at all cost. The family and friends of the astronauts will want them to return safely and their lives may be severely impacted if they do not.   

The Photo Working Group identified that the shed piece of foam was the largest they had ever seen and travelling at a high velocity relative to the shuttle. This was a cause for concern for the engineers as this would suggest that the foam could cause more damage than any of the previous instances. NASA’s mathematical software, CRATER, which was designed to predict the depth at which a TPS tile could be penetrated by debris, predicted that the thinner tiles could be completely penetrated but not the crucial thicker tiles at the leading edge of the wing, meaning the shuttle wouldn’t fail, however this software was not without limitation. Hence, to get an accurate quantification of the damage of the foam strike it was necessary to obtain the high quality images requested. NASA had the ability to request access to both the military’s satellites and their ground based resources that could have taken the photographs required for the analysis and has carried out this procedure in the past.

From an economic viewpoint the cost of using these would likely be almost negligible when compared with the money spent launching the shuttle into space. This cost was so small that management should have allowed it so that further investigations could have been performed.  

A deontological thinker would say that it was NASA’s duty to gather all the information possible regarding the extent of the damage by requesting access to the photographs from the military, as the astronauts and their families deserved to know the risks involved. The freedom principle, the moral principle that everyone is free to strive for his/her own pleasure, as long as they do not deny or hinder the pleasure of others, can be used to reinforce the deontological theory. By not carrying out further investigation many people will experience happiness but only at the detriment of the astronauts and their families. Hence, further investigation should have been completed.

For those that are interested, click here for a video courtesy of National Geographic of the Columbia Space Shuttle on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.

64: Jack Millar, Chris Owens, Oladayo Ogunyinka, Dominic Port


9 thoughts on “Was NASA right to not carry out an investigation?

  1. If one of NASA’s main concerns was the welfare of the astronauts and their families then surely something should have been done, even though the break up of the shuttle upon re-entry was only a possibility they should still take every course of action to eliminate any chance of death. If finance was an argument against launching an investigation, wouldn’t the fact that they completed a successful mission outweigh any potential economic issues?


  2. Interesting article – I remember watching a TV documentary on this subject once and thought it quite biased towards the engineers viewpoint. It is always easy to shout “I told you so” following a major incident like this especially when so many experts with opinions and advice are on hand and following events. However questions should be asked of NASA and their decision making should rightly be examined following the tragedy.
    It is interesting to note that this had happened often before (losing TPS tiles on take off) and I can only guess that NASA were working on the principal of ‘known’ risk and not of the ‘possible’ outcome. Sadly, it seems that once again we learn more from our mistakes and it took the death of these 7 crew members for NASA to fully understand the dangers of losing TPS tiles.
    One sad outcome of the incident is it heralded the beginning of the end of the space shuttle program as we know it.


  3. Whilst I think your comments from a utilitarian perspective are accurate, I am more persuaded by the argument for conducting further investigations, not just for arguments using a economic and deontological standpoints but I feel this could also be worked into the utilitarian point of view by stating that it would be in the interests of the majority for safety in space to be considered important and public confidence upheld in NASA.


  4. The decision of the managers using the information they had and without any argument from others would seem almost reasonable when taking into account ethical principals that look at benefit to the most people. However their was argument and since the pictures would have added such negligable cost overall it doesn’t seem possible to justify not taking them and allowing further investigation especially when it would make preservation of life more likely. When taking into account the autonomy and lives of the astronauts as well as their loved ones it is near impossible to justify the managers decision when the engineers provided reasonable doubt.


  5. I am amazed that NASA didn’t do everything in their power to try and avoid this tragedy. Any risk, whether proven or not, to the lives of these astronauts should have been fully investigated…..


  6. Taking a step back from the ethical reasoning for a moment – surely it is just common sense that a full investigation should be conducted if there is any chance, however slim, that any lessons learned may prevent loss of life in the future? It almost just looks like NASA is being lazy!


  7. It is easy to say in hindsight that there was only really one reasonable choice in order to save lives, however it is explained in the arguments against that even if an investigation had been carried out there would be nothing that could be done immediately to repair any damage. While the cost of an investigation may have been negligible, the cost to launch a rescue mission? Plus the risk and potential media embarrassment involved there as well? I think it is easy to see where the NASA managers where standing. Especially considering the statistics were a similar event occurred, 65 out of 79 and no major negative side effects, sounds like a safe bet to me.


  8. The NASA managers were in a pressurised situation, they made a decision which seemed reasonable at the time. When they made their decision it was
    not likely there was time to sit and argue out the ethical principles behind it in such a structured manner. Nonetheless is hard to agree with their decision given the perspective there is now. Unfortunately this is often how lessons are learned


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