A couple of days ago, I had the rare opportunity to visit the Columbia Debris Repository on the 16th floor of the VAB at Kennedy Space Center. It is a solemn experience to walk among the remaining parts of the space shuttle which bear witness to the tremendous forces that broke the vehicle apart and ended the lives of seven brave astronauts.
This experience is not available to the general public. But you can find places to see parts of Columbia. The data recorder, found miraculously intact in a field in east Texas, is on display in public areas at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the frame for the side hatch window is in the entrance display case of the Kennedy Space Center headquarters building in Florida. There is another part reportedly on display at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, although I have never been able to find it on my many visits there.
These artifacts have great engineering value showing how future spacecraft should be built to withstand the extreme conditions of space flight.
But there is a backstory that is more important. There is a story that must be told of how poor decisions were made, mistakes, and hubris. This more important story is not found in the artifacts, although they emphasize the consequences. It is for us who lived through those days to share that story.
It is not enough to remember the sacrifice of our brave friends, although we should do that. It is not enough to study the wreckage for clues of how to build better aerospace systems although we should do that. It is mandatory that we remember how those sacrifices and that wreckage came to be. And to prevent it from happening in the future.
Recently, some have said that loss of human life in spaceflight is to be accepted as a part of the cost of exploring the universe. That may be, but those of us in the business must always believe that going forward we have to all we can to prevent accidents.
Because forward into the universe we must go.