November 25, 2004

Shuttle Insights Revealing


What: The Last Flight of the Columbia

Where: TV3

When: 8.30pm, Thursday


THE Last Flight of the Columbia is the story of the disaster that everyone predicted, but no one seemed able to stop. How serious were the warnings of the impending crisis before space shuttle Columbia took flight in 2003? Should the launch have been halted? Or could a loose piece of foam have doomed the craft before it even left the atmosphere? Featuring revealing insights from the people who dealt with the tragedy, this is part forensic detective story, part moving testimony to the price we sometimes have to pay for stretching the boundaries of human achievement. Mixing powerful and deeply moving footage with forensic analysis, the documentary reveals what went wrong on Columbia and the final revelation is telling. If Nasa had acted differently, all seven astronauts could have been brought back to Earth alive. The Last Flight of the Columbia begins with the astronauts' final moments and shows the haunting scenes at Mission Control at the moment the disaster struck. What follows is a disturbing detective story as the investigators realise the tragedy was caused by the failure of a small panel on the shuttle's left wing. No one had ever thought such an accident was possible. It has led to the shuttle being grounded for the foreseeable future. The film also shows that Nasa had a number of options to bring the crew back safely -- if only it had commandeered a spy telescope to visually inspect the damage. But Nasa chose to rely on a computer programme for damage assessment and the programme got it wrong. The Space Shuttle programme underwent major changes after the Challenger disaster in 1986. Shuttles have a history of impact damage during liftoff due to the forces and speeds that the process involves. Because these impacts have happened on nearly every mission and not caused any serious damage, this particular impact was considered by Nasa to be of little risk to the shuttle's safety. On January 16 last year the crew of Columbia waved goodbye to their families. For the seven astronauts it was a lifetime's dreams fulfilled. The shuttle was designed as a cheap and easy way of taking commercial projects into space. Nasa had always hoped that it might even make money. But all that changed in 1986. Ever since the Challenger disaster all those money-making projects had dried up. Jim Oberg was a Nasa mission controller for more than 20 years. To him the death of seven astronauts and the loss of the shuttle was more than just an unfortunate accident. It had to be someone's fault. "The first feeling of course was, `Oh no not again'," says Oberg. "Not, `What is it that we did wrong?'. "Because we know how to fly shuttles safely, done it more than 100 times, something had gone wrong in the processing and in the decision making process, somebody on our team hadn't done their job. And it's a feeling of loss and a feeling of betrayal."