12 Years after the Space Shuttle Columbia

Non Destructive Testing and What We Learned

Moments of tremendous national tragedy can reveal a lot about all of us. Though we will grieve and lament and wish things could have been different, in the end, really making things different in the future always means learning from our past.

In the twelve years since the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, the aerospace industry has learned and has continued to grow and change along the way, too. Magna Chek Non-Destructive Testing strives to learn, too, from the ever-growing body of literature (and test results) [ http://www.magnachek.com/Services.aspx] that accompany even these most difficult and challenging kinds of events.

As the first Shuttle launched into space, few people remember now the incredible length and rigorousness of the testing this first Shuttle was put to, prior to its first launch in 1981. The Columbia was subjected to a full 610 days at one of the Orbiter Processing Facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That was followed by 35 days in the Vehicle Assembly Building and then another 105 days on the Launchpad. Nearly all of that time the shuttle itself was subjected to continuous testing and retesting. And testing covered every constituent part of the shuttle and all of the assemblies and parts needed to get it into space – and back.


The literature that NASA has generated [https://archive.org/details/nasa_techdoc_20050182676] with reference to all of the testing performed in service of programs like the Shuttle Program is, in and of itself, a tremendously valuable record and more. The sheer range and scale of tests, non-destructive and others, were simply never before undertaken, much less recorded. And so for the value of the experience, no one should doubt the ultimate value of the Space Shuttle program, even now after it’s been shuttered and the shop has been closed up.

While we won’t go into the technical details of what really went wrong with the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 (a good layman’s description is available here. http://www.space.com/19526-columbia-shuttle-disaster-explained-infographic.html]), it should be noted that few things are as thoroughly examined, from a scientific and engineering point of view as a tragedy of this scale.

Later studies indicated that a piece of hard foam had fallen from one of the external tanks onto the leading edge of the left wing, damaging the tiles covering the surface. The wing failed upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere after the mission on February 1, 2003. NASA, under the guise of The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, released a report on the entire disaster, from beginning to culmination and this report alone amounted to several volumes.

Further testing, and that report, led to the eventual redesign of the external tanks among other design changes. Future astronauts could also, of necessity, scan the belly and wings of the Shuttle with robotic cameras looking for tiles of the sort broken during Columbia’s launch.

Visual testing and inspection remain some of the most important procedures and in the tough environment outside the Earth’s atmosphere. They may even be some of the only tests available, at least on short notice after a questionable launch.

In fact, some of the strongest controversies surrounding the Columbia disaster still circle back to why those visual inspections were not performed during the Columbia’s last mission. After the fact, is too late, but that is how it worked out with the robotic camera procedures used on all subsequent Shuttle missions.

Importantly for all of us in Non-Destructive Testing is the idea that these Astronauts are not simply brave pioneers venturing into space. In every single test performed, whether for the soundness of a weld or the structural integrity of a plastic support arm, there are people at the end of every process. Good NDT technicians always remember that.

They may not always be the leaders in their fields, as the astronauts clearly are, but every failure of structure or system or process will potentially lead to equally catastrophic results.

For that reason, NDT specialists and other engineers are continually looking into the test results, the procedural and quality control results, as well as all of the other scientific findings generated by the Space Shuttle program and other similar programs. The combined technical knowledge, as well as other findings, are comparable to the entire Library of Alexandria, and then some. They are simply invaluable, as well as inspirational, and developing and relying on tough procedures for testing and inspecting continue to contribute to this ever increasing body of knowledge. At the end of every successful mission, be it into outer space or everywhere else that people come into contact with their environment, there are processes and materials that we all rely upon. Understanding them better is in all of our interest.

About the author:

This article was written by james t. James is a New Jersey native but currently lives in Mexico City because it’s a tad bit cold in New Jersey at the moment. Still, he is looking forward to the 2014 Super Bowl being held in his freezing home state.


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