Charles Camarda, 70, who grew up in Ozone Park, Queens, retired from NASA in 2019. Among his missions in his 45-year career were flying the first space shuttle to launch since the Columbia disaster in 2003. For years he raised the alarm about security flaws at the space agency, where he also served as director of engineering at the Johnson Space Center and deputy director of the NASA Engineering and Safety Center.
February 1 was the 20th anniversary of the Columbia accident, when the space shuttle re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on its return from space, killing all seven aboard. We sincerely remember and honor all the fallen heroes of NASA.
But to truly respect them, it is our responsibility to learn from our mistakes and make the necessary changes to ensure they are never repeated. However, NASA has not learned from both the Challenger and Columbia accidents and is not ready for the next space race with China. One that we could very well miss.
I was a mission specialist on the January 26, 2005 NASA return mission. The script I read in memory of my lost comrades during that flight, filmed by NASA, still haunts me today:
“Tragically, two years ago, we realized once again that we had let our guard down. We were lost in our own pride and learned once again the terrible price that our failures would have paid. Is.
They bother me because NASA has never let its guard down. In fact, he never protected himself after each accident and only performed weak spotting jobs to meet the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). Worse, the fight was settled.
After Columbia, Admiral Harold Gehmann was charged with leading the CAIB, and under his leadership, it resulted in one of the most thorough and open accident investigations in US history.
The board concluded that although Challenger and Columbia had different technical causes, the real cause of the accidents was NASA’s toxic culture. CAIB worked hard and made concrete recommendations to correct the cultural and technical issues.
Unfortunately, NASA would ignore the cultural issues openly raised, and arrogantly brush aside the board’s insightful recommendations just months after the accident. In fact, many of the new leaders exhibited the same bad behavior – and almost led to the tragedies of two consecutive shuttle flights, STS-114 – my mission – and STS-121 in 2006.
Columbia disintegrated when a large piece of foam came off an external tank and hit the orbiter carrying the crew, something that should never have happened and a problem that NASA never fully understood. During our launch, a 3-foot piece of foam called the Protuberance Airload Ramp snapped and narrowly missed hitting our starboard wing.
We then looked at two small pieces of felt called a gap filler that stuck between the protective tiles near the nose of the orbiter could disrupt airflow and lead to disaster. People on Earth debated doing a spacewalk to fix it.
The crew of STS-114 made an unprecedented agreement before launch. At the end of each day, we will speak privately with the head of the astronaut’s office and no one else.
The atmosphere was so toxic that I kept a contact list of key researchers in my staff notebook that I could use to bypass mission control and speak directly to researchers I trusted.
From space, I called Tom Horvath, a good friend and aerothermal expert at NASA Langley, to determine the severity of the space-filling problem. His team’s skill and tenacity led our two crew members to make an informed decision to conduct an unplanned, emergency spacewalk. This crucial decision later proved to save the lives of our crew.
On the next shuttle flight, STS-121, I stood up at a readiness review as the new director of engineering and said “I don’t believe we’re safe to fly.” There were other pieces of foam called ice frost ramps (IFRs) that needed to be removed. Others supported me, but the NASA administrator insisted on going ahead. I was fired from my position after 10 days.
What we feared happened—the IFRs foamed during launch and nearly hit the wing. At a mission management team meeting the next day, NASA leaders can be seen high-fiving each other after a call from the crew that they have found no damage to the orbiter.
We survived two incidents that could have caused the loss of life and the cancellation of the entire human space exploration program. How will this honor our fallen heroes?
No NASA bureaucrat should have the power to decide the fate of human spaceflight in this country, it belongs to every citizen. We did not have an independent, objective technical authority as suggested by the CAIB. We had oppressive leadership and a system that still favored a production culture rather than a research-based culture—driven to meet schedules and budgets.
Former Senator Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, recently expressed sincere concern that we are currently in a space race with China for vital resources on the surface of the Moon.
The stakes are much higher during Apollo than they were 50 years ago, and a loss now could be catastrophic for our country. China has become a much more formidable adversary, while NASA has evolved into a bloated, hierarchical, highly bureaucratic organization with few glimpses of its former glory.
NASA, you have a problem!
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