Tolerating and Ignoring Risk
Ten years ago today, the Columbia space shuttle, operating as STS-107, disintegrated over Texas killing all aboard. Columbia had completed a 16-day mission and was returning to Kennedy Space Center.
The shuttle’s huge main fuel tank was covered with insulating foam designed to prevent ice formation. The shuttle at lift-off was comprised of the orbiter, the fuel tank and two solid rocket boosters. These elements were connected together and the tank attachment point, covered with insulating foam, had become notorious for “shedding” foam debris on climb out.
Previous shuttle missions had clearly identified other shedding events. Indeed, STS-112, several months before, had shed a chunk of foam that created a dent in the solid rocket booster/external tank attach point which measured 4″ wide by 3″ deep.
Foam shedding had become such a regular event that upper level NASA leaders continued the launches as scheduled. Put another way, an event which clearly had the capacity to cripple the shuttle (and kill the crew) had become routine and normalized till it was no longer considered to be a threat.
About 82 seconds into the launch at an altitude of around 66,000 feet, a suitcase sized piece of foam separated from the attach point. The shuttle was traveling at 1,870 miles per hour and accelerating and the impact likely caused a 6 to 10 inch diameter hole in the leading edge of the left wing.
Some NASA officials on the ground ignored requests by engineers to attempt to characterize the damage using DOD assets, suggesting it would be better for the crew to die happy and ignorant.
As Columbia streaked across the pre-dawn sky, those on the ground observed a fiery trial: the orbiter was breaking up.
The first indication in Mission Control was four left wing hydraulic sensors dropping off line probably as a result of heat damage.
The rest is history though the lessons are widely applicable to firefighting and should not be lost:
1. If you are operating on the incident scene and you have not been medically evaluated or if you have a cardiac condition you are ignoring the number one risk factor leading to firefighter deaths.
2. If you are riding or driving fire/rescue apparatus and you are not seated and belted you are ignoring or tolerating risk that has repeatedly been shown to result in firefighter deaths.
3. If you are operating on the fire ground in forward or exposed positions such as in front of or above the hoseline, your reason should be both compelling and borne from a conscious risk assessment.
We honor the Columbia crew on this and every day by re-dedicating ourselves to safe operations.