A Sober History of Shuttle Disasters is a Grim Reminder of the Dangers of Space

Space is beautiful, enchanting, awe-inspiring, and utterly unforgiving. We celebrate the victories, but don't let a string of successes deceive you into thinking spaceflight is easy. A new documentary investigates the major malfunctions, technical and procedural, that led to NASA space shuttle explosions.

Illustration for article titled A Sober History of Shuttle Disasters is a Grim Reminder of the Dangers of Space

Smoke plume of the Challenger explosion. Image credit: NASA

Retro Report just released Major Malfunction, a documentary on the two Shuttle catastrophes. Major malfunction is an understatement for the destruction of Space Shuttle Challenger moments after launch in 1986, and the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia during re-entry in 2003.

This isn't a fun watch; you won't be left cheerful and glowing afterwards. But you will be left soberly impressed with the sheer bravery of the people involved in breaking free of our planet, and the people who get them safely out and back home again.

This is why NASA astronauts give out the prized Snoopy pins to those who safeguard the safety of the crewed spaceflight program, and why one of Reid Wiseman's first tweets from space was to thank the crew who built his rocket well and got him into orbit safely. Most importantly, this is why orbital inspections are now a priority instead of a derailment of the main mission, to make the harsh, unforgiving process of spaceflight as safe as we can get it.


This article should have been called A Sober History of Shuttle Disasters is a Grim Reminder of the Dangers of Bad Engineering and Bureaucracy.

Seriously, people. Challenger disaster was a result of NASA's inability to address a known flaw with the sealing rings in the solid rocket boosters. Look up "Rogers Commission Report". The solid-fuel rockets were themselves a product of a convoluted design process plagued by the constant attempts to use the cheapest components possible, which then required much more funds to integrate together. There were designs in development which used a single surface-to-orbit stage, but NASA chose in favor of the flawed "cheap now, don't care about cost later" Shuttle which ultimately cost nearly 10 times per flight than their original goal/estimate. Bureaucracy and stupid inter-team competition, again.

Likewise, the Columbia disaster could have been preventable, or at least loss of lives minimized, if NASA management listened to multiple requests from the engineers to take pictures of the damaged wing while docked to ISS. I am not sure anyone even suggested EVA to assess and possibly fix the damage to the heat-shield tiles. Instead, the apparent attitude of the Operations Director was "we'd rather not scare the astronauts, if the shuttle blows up better let them die instantly in blissful ignorance."

Seriously, I'd be more scared knowing that the mission is managed by bureaucrats with such attitudes, than of burning up on re-entry.