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NASA official reflects on disaster

Thagard, Andrew | Monday, November 10, 2003

William Readdy, associate administrator of NASA’s Office of Space Flight, offered an insider’s perspective on the investigation of the space shuttle Columbia accident and reflected on his career Friday during the first installment of the Distinguished Engineering Lecture Series.

The Naval Academy graduate and former astronaut recalled a similar disaster that occurred at the start of his career with the space agency – the explosion of the shuttle Challenger in 1986.

“Every single day we committed ourselves to making sure that Challenger would not happen again,” he said. “I learned on the morning of Feb. 1 [2003] that it could happen and it had happened again.”

Space shuttle Columbia exploded while re-entering the atmosphere, killing all seven crew members aboard. Investigations conducted afterwards attributed the explosion to displaced foam insulation that ripped a hole in the shuttle’s left wing.

Readdy said that on that day he and other officials at NASA made a promise to the crew’s family to find out what had happened, fix the problem and continue space flight.

“Nothing good is accomplished without great risk and tragedy,” he said. “Our agency has been defined by great triumphs but also great tragedies. We’ll redefine ourselves by getting the shuttle flying again probably by this time next year.”

When it reentered the atmosphere, debris from Columbia were scattered within an area 200 miles long and four nautical miles wide, Readdy said. Based on success in recovering wreckage from plane crashes, the National Transportation Board advised NASA that they would be lucky to recover 10 percent of the shuttle and would likely never determine what happened on board during the final moments.

Instead, the agency recovered nearly 40 percent of the shuttle and repositioned the pieces both manually and digitally to gain insight into what caused the disaster.

Readdy also extolled the importance of strong ethics and morals and said engineers must always do what is right and accept responsibility for their actions.

“This is a cultural transformation that has to occur because none of us out there wants to be embarrassed … or deliver the bad news,” he said. “That’s one of the things you’ll [engineers] have to do. You’ll have to say what the math and science says rather than what they want to hear.”

He praised the decision to form an independent outside board to investigate the Columbia accident. He said that the board produced over 3,000 pages of reports and that the agency is in the midst of sifting through the findings.

Readdy spoke briefly of his experiences as an astronaut, describing it as “the ultimate human adventure.” He is a veteran of three shuttle mission, including commanding a docking to the MIR Space Station. Readdy described the bravery and sense of duty that astronauts must possess.

“I can tell you that every one of those crew members [aboard Columbia] was a volunteer and they would have done it on Feb. 2,” he said. “It’s not about us, it’s about building a better future.”

The Distinguished Engineering Lecture Series is designed to showcase engineers who have excelled in their respective fields. The series is sponsored by the College of Engineering.