The Columbia Tragedy: System-Level Issues for Engineering
Dean’s Distinguished Lecturer Series Event
Featuring Dr. Sheila E. Widnall
Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Professor
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
McDonnell Douglas Engineering Auditorium
Reception to follow
To RSVP, please email engineerRSVP@uci.edu
Columbia accident resulted from an organizational systems failure which allowed the physical event to occur: insulating foam from the external tank impacted the Shuttle creating a breech in the wing leading edge that allowed gases at temperatures of some 5-10000 degrees F to enter the wing and devastate the internal structure.
Schedule pressure created a motivation to treat in-flight anomalies as maintenance turn-around events, or even the results of planned/unplanned tests, rather than as an immediate danger to the vehicle.
The response of engineers and program mangers during the 16 days that Columbia was in orbit raises important issues for the education and utilization of engineers, as well as questions about the responsibility of engineers to treat system-level issues with the same disciplinary respect and expertise that they treat components.
Out of this tragedy, one can draw some underlying principles concerning the characteristics of organizations that can effectively deal with risk technologies. These principles can be applied to the NASA structure itself, as well as other organizations.
The ultimate impact of our findings rested upon the credibility of our report, the independence of the Board and the expansiveness of our charter. There are lessons to be learned in all of these areas that are often overlooked. Engineers must be sensitive to these issues, for ultimately the failure to consider them can obviate years of their hard and dedicated work.