Columbia: On February 1, 2003 a space shuttle broke up during a seemingly routine reentry, killing seven crew members. The Israeli astronaut on board had provided most of the media interest, because of the heightened fear of terrorism. A high-profile investigation is closing in on the probable technical causes (damage to the left wing during launch, age of the fleet), which were suspected and troubling to some engineers and managers during the mission. For various institutional and technical reasons, the damage was never verified before reentry. The investigation added a political scientist-historian, and is looking beyond technical issues at the institutional culture of the agency and contractors.
These cases show how seemingly minute technical issues can have wide-ranging social, political, and other dimensions. It also introduces the issue of ethical conduct in a technical context where there is ambiguity, conflicting interpretations, and uneven power relationships.
Columbia Accident Web Sites
The Columbia accident investigation
was covered via the following web sites, some of which may now be inactive::
CBS News Bill Harwood Web Page
CAIB Columbia Accident Investigation Board
CAIB Special Media Page
NASA Human Spaceflight Web Page on STS-107
NASA Official Web Page Columbia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Documents
NASA History Office Columbia Web Page
NASA Return to Flight Task Force
NASA Vision for Future Exploration of Space ("Bush 43 Vision")
President's Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration (Aldridge Commission)
Columbia Accident Books and Articles (very selective)
The Columbia accident and NASA's response are covered in the following published books and reports:
Cabbage, Michael, and William Harwood. Comm Check . . . The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia. New York: Free Press, 2004.
Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report Volume 1 + Supplemental Materials (CD_ROM). Burlington, Ontario: Apogee Books, 2003.
Handberg, Roger. "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: NASA After the Columbia Accident." Space Times 42, no. 5 (2003): 18-23.
Langewiesche, William. " Columbia's Last Flight." Atlantic Monthly 292, no. 4 (2003): 58-87.
Sietzen, Jr. Frank, and Keith L. Cowling. New Moon Rising: the Making of America's New Space Vision and the Remaking of NASA. Ontario: Apogee Books, 2004.
Challenger Accident Published Materials and Archives
The Challenger accident and NASA's response are covered in the following published books and reports:
1. Jensen, Claus, and Barbara Haveland. No Downlink: a Dramatic Narrative About the Challenger Accident. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996.
2. Lewis, Richard S. Challenger: the Final Voyage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
3. McConnell, Malcolm. Challenger: a Major Malfunction. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987.
4. Trento, Joseph J. Prescription for Disaster: From the Glory of Apollo to the Betrayal of the Shuttle. New York: Crown, 1987.
5. Vaughan, Diane. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Culture, Technology, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1996.
1. Collins, Harry, and Trevor Pinch. "The Naked Launch: Assigning Blame for the Challenger Explosion." The Golem: What You Should Know About Technology. Harry Collins, and Trevor Pinch, 30-56. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
2. Feynman, Richard. "Mr. Feynman Goes to Washington: Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster." What Do You Care What Other People Think? Further Adventures of a Curious Character. Richard Feynman, 113-239. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.
3. Gieryn, Thomas F., and Anne E. Figert. "Ingredients for a Theory of Science in Society: O-Rings, Ice Water, C-Clamp, Richard Feynman and the New York Times." Theories of Science in Society. editors Susan Cozzens, and Thomas F. Gieryn. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991.
1. Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (Rogers Commission). Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, GPO, Washington, 1986.
2. Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). Report Volume I. (August 2003); Appendices Volumes II-VI. (October, 2003).
1. CNN. Terminal Count: What It Takes to Make the Shuttle Fly. 1:00 hrs 2001. VHS Videorecording.
KCTS TV Seattle. Astronauts.
1:00 hrs. VHS Videorecording.
Maier, Mark. A Major Malfunction: The Story Behind the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. VHS Videorecording with supplemental materials.
3. NASA Television. Challenger Anniversary Video Package. 8 min. 1996. VHS Videorecording.
Warning: there are numerous web sites ranging from authoritative to miserably erroneous. Our comments are intended to help you evaluate the reliability of the information found. Official and reputable web sites themselves have points of view, and their content may be slanted or missing certain perspectives. Even the best sites may contain some errors.
Rick. "The Challenger's Final Minutes." Web page, Available at
Abstract: Reliable compilation of information and links concerning the last recorded words of the crew and the widely circulated hoax transcript beyond 73 seconds.
Dunar, Andrew J. and Stephen P. Waring. "Power to
Explore: A History of Marshall Space Flight Center, 1960-1990." Web page, 2001
[accessed 1 June 2001]. Available at
Abstract: Full Text; see especially Chapter IX: The Challenger Accident
Federation of American Scientists. "51-L The
Challenger Accident." Web page, [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at
Abstract: Extensive and well-annotated list of links.
5. Friendly, Michael. "Gallery of Data Visualization: The Best and Worst of Statistical Graphics: Challenger Disaster." Web page, [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://www.math.yorku.ca/SCS/Gallery/
6. James, M. Neil. "DSGN119 - Design as a Generic Tool." Web page, [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://www.tech.plym.ac.uk/sme/FailureCases/Failure.htm#Challenger%20Space%20Shuttle
Mark A. Haisler and Robert Throop. "The Challenger
Accident:: An Analysis of the Mechanical and Administrative Causes of the
Accident and the Redesign Process that Followed." Web page, Fall 1997 [accessed
7 June 2001]. Available at
Abstract: Well designed and annotated site.
MIT Online Ethics Center for Engineering and
Science. "Roger Boisjoly on the Challenger Disaster." Web page, [accessed 7
June 2001]. Available at
Abstract: Morton Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly's discussion of the Challenger Disaster is separated into seven sections. Each section is then followed by responses and supporting material.
9. Mottley, Jack G. "ECE 399, Seminar in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Challenger Case Study." Web page, Spring 2001 [accessed 1 June 2001]. Available at http://www.courses.rochester.edu/mottley/ECE399/PDFFiles/ChallengerCase.pdf.
NASA. "Implementation of the Recommendations of the
Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident." Web page,
[accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at
Abstract: Full text of the NASA Report to the President on implementing the recommendations of the Rogers Commission
NASA. "Information on the STS-51L/Challenger
Accident." Web page, [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at
Abstract: NASA History Office official site, containing both NASA and non-NASA links with no commentary.
12. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Shuttle Projects Office. "Reusable Solid Rocket Motor and Solid Rocket Boosters." Web page, [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://shuttle.msfc.nasa.gov/rsrmsrb.htm
13. NASA Texas Aerospace Scholars Organization. "Evolution of the Space Shuttle." Web page, [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://aerospacescholars.org/scholars/earthstationmoon/UNIT1/lesson1.htm.
14. National Air and Space Museum. "The Space Race: Space Shuttle: First Reusable Spacecraft." Web page, [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://www.nasm.edu/galleries/gal114/SpaceRace/sec500/sec540.htm
Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle
Challenger Accident (Rogers Commission). "Report of the Presidential Commission
on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident." Web page, June 1986 [accessed 7 June
2001]. Available at
Abstract: Full text of the Rogers Commission Report
16. List of Shuttle contractors: http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/technology/sts-newsref/sts-subs.html#sts-subs
Archives & Manuscripts
1. Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (Rogers Commission). ""Challenger" Commission Audiovisual Materials." U.S. National Archives, College Park, Maryland
———. ""Challenger" Commission P.C. Numbered
Abstract: Official archive of the Commission, available at National Archives: "The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, chaired by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers, investigated the circumstances surrounding the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986. The Commission was established in February 1986, pursuant to Executive Order 12546, and it issued its final report in June 1986. At the conclusion of its investigation, the records of the Commission were transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for permanent preservation. They have been accessioned in the Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards (Record Group 220) [see entry 220.19, Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States (1995)], and are available to the public. " 8-linear feet or 148-boxes. See INFORMATION FOR RESEARCHERS: RECORDS OF THE PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION ON THE SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER ACCIDENT http://www.nara.gov/nara/electronic/challngr.html and RECORDS OF THE PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION ON THE SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER ACCIDENT http://www.archives.gov/research_room/research_topics/space_shuttle_challenger_accident.html
3. Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) manuscripts and other materials will be archived at a future date. Details may be found in the CAIB Final Report, Volume 1, pp. 235-236, “A.6. Board Documentation System.”
# # #
Note to visitors: this web
page was developed in part for a segment of the HCST 100 Introduction to the
Human Context of Science & Technology course at UMBC, taught by Joseph N.
Tatarewicz (Department of History) and Ted Foster (College of Engineering).
More resources can be found at the Challenger page for that course:
Send an e-mail message to the Author
Last updated: October 19, 2004
Expiration date: Current