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NOVA: Space Shuttle Disaster

Airs Wednesday, June 22, 2011 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Official crew photo from Mission STS-107 on the space shuttle Columbia

Credit: Courtesy of NASA

Above: Official crew photo from Mission STS-107 on the space shuttle Columbia

The Insider Who Knew

In this interview, Rodney Rocha, a chief structural engineer in the Space Shuttle program, describes the tense days leading up to the Columbia disaster. Rocha, who had reviewed videos of the launch, feared that the craft might be vulnerable upon reentry.

On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas just 16 minutes before it was due to land. All seven astronauts aboard perished; the worldwide repercussions on the future of the space shuttle program were enormous. What caused the Columbia tragedy? An engineering flaw? A failure within NASA? A lack of financing? Could this catastrophe have been avoided?

Through interviews with astronauts and their families, as well as with members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, this documentary gives viewers a new look at the Columbia tragedy - and at NASA itself. From the creation of NASA through decades of technical and financial compromises, "Space Shuttle Disaster" gets to the heart of what went wrong - and how to make sure it never happens again.

In the wake of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, investigators did a fairly simple physics calculation and realized that a piece of foam had struck the shuttle’s left wing with more than a ton of force during lift-off, blasting a hole in heat shields that normally provide protection during reentry. In this simulation, follow in the investigators’ footsteps to understand how featherlight foam could strike with devastating force.

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NOVA: Space Shuttle Disaster

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA.

At the end of a nearly flawless 15-day mission in early 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry into Earth's atmosphere, killing the crew of seven men and women. In this documentary, NOVA probes the accident and the decisions stretching back four decades that made the tragedy almost inevitable.

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