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

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. 

The Columbia accident is perhaps an extreme example of an organizational systems failure, but general lessons can be drawn.  Engineers and their programs are imbedded in organizational structures.  These structures control the success or failure of the programs. In dealing with high-risk technologies, the characteristics of these organizations determine the risk to individuals and society from these technologies.  

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.