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Doomed Columbia crew told 'the shuttle's fine' as Nasa remembers disaster

What should you tell the astronauts of the doomed space shuttle Columbia?

This was the question raised by a top Nasa official in 2003 just days before the accident that claimed seven astronauts' lives.

At the time, managers thought – wrongly – that Columbia's heat shield was fine. It wasn't. Columbia, Nasa's oldest shuttle, broke apart over Texas 10 years ago upon returning to Earth after a 16-day mission.

But the story of that question – retold a decade later – illustrates a key lesson from the tragedy, says Wayne Hale, a flight director who later ran the shuttle programme for Nasa.


That lesson: Never give up. No matter how hopeless.

And to illustrate the lesson, Hale tells for the first time the story of his late boss who seemingly suggested doing just that. Mission operations chief Jon Harpold asked the now-retired Hale a what-if question after a meeting that determined – wrongly – that Columbia was safe to land despite some damage after takeoff.

"You know there is nothing we can do about damage to the (thermal protection system)," Hale quotes Harpold a decade later.

"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."

When Harpold raised the question with Hale in 2003, managers had already concluded Columbia's heat shield was fine.

They told astronauts they weren't worried about damage from foam insulation coming off the massive shuttle fuel tank during launch, hitting a wing that allowed superheated gases in when the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere.

No one was aware of the seriousness of the damage at the time.

In fact, Nasa officials were overconfident in the heat shield on Columbia.

A day after launch, Nasa saw video of the foam from the shuttle's fuel tank hit the shuttle wing, something that had happened before. Nasa officials studied the damage and determined it wasn't a problem.


Nasa managers even sent the crew a 15-second video clip of the foam strike and "made it very clear to them – no, no concerns".

Had Nasa realised the severity of the problem, the space agency would not have just let the astronauts die without a fight or a word, despite Harpold's hypothetical question, Hale said. Ultimately, Hale said he thinks whatever Nasa tried probably would have failed.

A few hundred people gathered at Florida's Kennedy Space Center yesterday to remember the Columbia seven, which included the first Israeli spaceman.