Ten years ago, the accident at Columbia gave the final blow to the shuttles

The crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia ten years ago on February 1, 2003, which claimed the lives of the seven astronauts on board, killed the shuttle flights and overhauled the US space program.

NASA boss Charles Bolden and several other senior officials will participate in a tribute ceremony Friday at Arlington Military Cemetery in Virginia near Washington.

The space agency will commemorate the seven astronauts from Columbia, the three Apollo 1 astronauts who died in a fire during a ground exercise in January 1967 as well as the seven members of the Challenger crew.

Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, 73 seconds after takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Columbia, the first shuttle to fly into space in April 1981, disintegrated on its return to the atmosphere. The thermal protection of one of its wings had been damaged by the impact of a piece of insulating foam detached from the external tank shortly after takeoff two weeks before.

After this accident, the Bush administration decided to end the program but to let the three remaining shuttles fly until 2011, the time to complete the International Space Station (ISS) to honor the commitments of the United States vis -to its partners, explained to AFP John Logsdon, the former director of the “Space Policy Institute” at George Washington University.

He was also a member of the National Accident Investigation Bureau.

The end of the shuttles was almost earlier, recalls John Logsdon. In July 2005, during the first flight of an orbiter since the accident, the same problem which had been fatal at Columbia reoccurred but without the piece of insulating foam detached from the outer tank piercing the thermal protection.

NASA then nailed the orbiters to the ground for nearly a year and the Bush administration was on the verge of stopping everything, according to John Logsdon. The president finally gave in to pressure from international partners to complete the ISS.

Fundamental error

“Very soon after the first shuttle flights in the 1980s, we quickly realized that it would not keep its promises of easy and cheap access to space”, notes this expert, adding that no advanced replacement projects then did not materialize.

“I think – as the accident investigation committee said – that the non-replacement of the shuttle was a failure of political leaders” which confined the United States in low orbit for thirty years, insists John Logsdon.

But “the fundamental mistake was made in 1971 and 1972 when it was decided to develop a spacecraft combining crew and cargo transport,” he continues.

“Having separate spaceships for astronauts and cargo is a better approach which is also less expensive,” he insists noting that in the Orion capsule, currently in development for manned flights to an asteroid and Mars, there is a back-up system allowing it to be detached from the launcher in the event of a launching problem. The shuttle did not have such a mechanism.

The last shuttle flew in July 2011 after completing the ISS leaving the United States to depend on Russian Soyuz to transport their astronauts to the Station at a cost of $ 60 million per seat while it was time to develop American alternatives.

In 2010, President Barack Obama set up a program to encourage the private sector to develop systems for transporting freight and then astronauts to the ISS.

SpaceX, one of the selected firms, has already taken up the challenge of successfully completing the first two flights of its unmanned Dragon capsule to transport cargo to the Station and return to Earth.