NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is considered to be a symbol of the United States’ pride and national identity. By taking up the challenges of space exploration, the institution has been a driving force for putting the U. S. in the space world. It has been through the efforts of the crew, scientists, engineers and administration of NASA that the U. S. has been able to send space shuttles deep into space to discover new organisms, setting foot on the moon and collaborate with other nations to set up the ISS (International Space Station).
Despite many successes, NASA has also witnessed a eries of failures. Space accidents like Apollo 1, Apollo 13, the Challenger and Columbia have dotted the history of NASA’s missions. Evidence suggests that the cost of lives and money involved in each of these so-called accidents do not justify for the large chunk of the national budget that the government allocates for NASA every year. The government and those working within NASA need to reconsider the causes of these tragedies and take initiatives in reorganizing the institution’s system.
Opponents of NASA feel that the institution has not really benefited the country as such, and instead incurred costs to the ublic. Proponents, on the other hand, offer the view that NASA has been critical for the US progress and future, and that accidents do happen. However, events of the Columbia disaster, just one of the many tragedies experienced by NASA, indicate little efforts have been made in improving the standards of shuttles and its administration which have been the major causes for accidents in the past.
On February 1, 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia started what was expected to be a normal re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere after a successful mission. The re-entry process started at 8AM (EST). At 8. 7 AM the last transmission was received from the Columbia and within a few minutes (at 9. 05), residents of a small Texas town reported hearing a large boom in the sky (Starbuck, 2005). Within minutes it became clear that the Columbia had in deed broken up in re-entry and a multi-agency/jurisdictional response to the disaster was put into effect (Starbuck, 2005).
Response to Accident The response to this disaster can be evaluated in many ways as a rippling effect. The first response was within NASA itself, specifically Mission Control for this specific space shuttle mission, but then spread throughout various branches of government, from ocal police forces within the debris field to the national government. Within five minutes of widespread reports of the shuttle breaking up in the skies of Texas, the NASA flight director “declared a contingency” (meaning events had led to the loss of a vehicle) and alerted search/rescue teams within the general area of the breakup (Cabbage, 2004).
The flight director also ordered the ground controller to “lock the doors” – meaning that no-one could enter or leave mission control, and all data had to be preserved for the future investigation of the accident. This response was logical. First of all, NASA looked to the outside in the form of escue response teams, and then inside as it sought to hermetically seal mission control so that as much information as possible could be gained. At this point it is sensible to consider some of the differences between the Challenger disaster and the Columbia crash.
The intervening years had brought the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 and a whole new overlay of government response in the form of the Department of Homeland Security. The lock down of mission control and the preservation of data would have occurred anyway, but there was a greater sense of urgency due to the unlikely, but still in need of nvestigation, possibility of terrorist attack. The possibility of terrorism was perhaps increased by the fact that one of the shuttle’s crew was a colonel in the Israeli air force, Ilan Ramon: the first Israeli astronaut.
While this terrorist possibility was soon rejected, the incident did invoke a response from the Department of Homeland Security. The breakup of the Columbia clearly fitted within the parameters of that the Department was designed to do: To prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies, the United States Government shall establish a single, comprehensive pproach to domestic incident management.
The objective of the United States Government is to ensure that all levels of government across the Nation have the capability to work efficiently and effectively together, using a national approach to domestic incident management. In these efforts, with regard to domestic incidents, the United States Government treats crisis management and consequence management as a single, integrated function, rather than as two separate functions.
Importance of Analysis What aspects of the Columbia disaster led to appropriate intervention from the Department of Homeland Security? Clearly it was not the scale of the loss of life:- the death of seven individuals in an accident, however tragic to the families concerned, would not normally justify a national response. Rather, it was who those individuals were, and the fact that they died during one of the most public activities undertaken by the US government: space missions.
Secondly, the sheer geographical range of the debris from Columbia (over several states) almost necessitated such a response: The debris field was several hundred miles long, with the majority being found in rural areas to the south east of Dallas into Louisiana. The sheer scale of what the nvestigation had to deal with is shown by the fact that “more than 70,000 shuttle parts have been found across more than 2,400 miles of Texas and Louisiana. ” (space. com, 2007) There were multiple purposes for finding as much of the debris as quickly as possible.
First of all, the discovery of the astronaut’s remains so they could receive a dignified burial. Second, the recovery of as much of the shuttle as possible to discover what had caused the accident. Third, the fact that there were many hazardous materials within the shuttle that could injure or potentially kill the public if they happened to pick hem up from the ground (Starbuck, 2005). Indeed, pieces of the space shuttle were found lying in the yards and even the driveways of numerous people.
If the person had no knowledge of the Columbia disaster, they might be regarded as just a piece of scrap metal (space. com, 2007). Recovery of materials from the space shuttle Columbia was mostly put into the hands of local law enforcement. This enforcement was involved because the wreckage was officially regarded as ‘government property’ and as such law enforcement at all jurisdictional levels had a duty to find it, protect it from public mishandling or outright isappropriation and to return it to its rightful owner: the government.
While local law enforcement gathered up shuttle debris it was the federal authorities that charged members of the public who were found gathering pieces of the shuttle as curiosity pieces. For example, on February 6th, 2003 two men, Merrie Hipp and Bradley Gaudet, were charged with “theft of government property” after being found with bits of the shuttle. The local US Attorney, Michael Shelby, stated that “the issue here is the thermodynamics of the space shuttle and any piece of that is important to this investigation . . . no-one nows which piece will unravel the mystery. (space. com, 2007).
At least seventeen other investigations occurred around this time, including one that led to the federal charge of theft of public property being laid against Harrison County Constable Robert Hagan, II for taking parts of the shuttle while involved with the search for debris. In this case the federal government charged a local government officer with a crime. Shelby commented that “it is a particularly troubling day when an individual who swore to uphold the law is charged with stealing evidence and hindering this historic investigation. (space. com. 2007).
The use of the word evidence, although perhaps a slip on the part of an attorney used to seeing all parts of an investigation as offering ‘evidence’, suggests that a crime was being investigated with the crash of the Columbia. In fact, at this stage, as part of the overreach of the Department of Homeland Security, nothing was being ruled out. An interesting side-note to this aspect of the response to the Columbia disaster is the question of whether a piece of something that broke up at least 18 miles in the air, and then, as happened with many pieces, landed on rivate property, still remained the property of the government.
The argument over whether ownership had essentially been transferred, and also the related one that a person cannot “steal” something which has no monetary value, was never raised in court however. So many pieces of the Columbia were in fact taken by local Texas/Louisiana people that the federal government offered an “amnesty” for all those who had “stolen” them, as long as they returned the pieces and told the authorities exactly where they found them. Many people took advantage of this amnesty although it is clear that many ieces of debris remain in private hands, a rather strange memento of a terrible event.
Who were the main people involved with the search? In the initial stages they were the “National Guard, Texas Department of Public Safety and emergency personnel from local towns and communities” (Report, 2004). These were “soon overwhelmed . . . with a debris field several orders of magnitude larger than any previous accident site. . . “ (Report, 2004). Within a day or so “NASA and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials activated Forest Service firefighters to serve as the primary search teams” (Report, 2004).
So the search teams started as local entities, were taken over by NASA/FEMA and eventually used National Forest Service firefighters. This was a truly multi-agency response. Identification of Cause The debris field was indeed massive: the Columbia had broken up at about 40 miles height, and so it created a huge accident scene on the ground unlike anything that had either been seen or perhaps even imagined. In the weeks that followed more than 4000 searchers were involved, accompanied by “Global Positioning System-equipped NASA and Environmental Protection Agency personnel trained to handle and identify ebris. (Report, 2004).
One particularly difficult area of search was within the Lake Nacogdoches and Toledo Bend Reservoir regions, where “sonar mapping of more than 31 square miles of lake bottom identified more than 3,100 targets . . . “ (Report, 2004). Visibility was only a “few inches” however for the divers involved. There were sixty divers involved with the search and they show the sheer range of agencies which were involved with the search: The 60 divers came from the Navy, Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, Texas Forest Service, Texas Department of Public Safety, Houston and
Galveston Police and Fire Departments, and Jasper County Sheriff’s Department. (Report, 2004) This effort, using some of the best divers available from multiple agencies, only produced one object from both lakes. This lack of results showed the difficulty of the search in such waters, and yet also the tenacity of the response involved. In the end the recovery operation was huge in proportions. It involved “more than 25,000 people from 270 organizations took part . . . over 1. 5 million hours covering more than 2. 3 million acres . . debris weighing more than 84,900 pounds, representing 38 percent of he Orbiter’s dry weight” (Report, 2004).
The initial response to the disaster involved the invoking of the Incident Command System, which was then converted to a Unified Command System when it became clear the criteria for such a system had been met. This was basically that there were multiple jurisdictions involved with multiple-agency responsibility. ICS turned into UCS when President Bush declared East Texas (where shuttle debris was located) a Federal Disaster Area. This meant that “emergency response teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Environmental Agency would become involved.
It were these who eventually took control of the situation, under the lead of NASA. This was obviously a strength as NASA had the detailed knowledge and FEMA/EPA had the logistical skills to tackle the sheer range of the debris. Initially local authority personnel, essentially acting under their initiative – these included county constables, private volunteers on horseback and some state police – started to search for debris and remains. A private college, Stephen B. Austin University, “sent seven teams into the field with Global Positioning System units to mark the exact ocation of debris. (Report, 2004).
Obviously the weakness of these actions were that they were occurring on an ad hoc, essentially improvisational basis. But within hours of the disaster, clear lines of authority had been established with NASA at the top and various other federal agencies underneath them acting to fill out the plan in place. A certain amount of ad hoc activity still existed, such as the manner in which divers were gathered together for the search in the lakes, but at this low level of the operation within the field this was a logical course of action.