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The Columbia Accident Investigation Board found that NASA was negligent in investigating the possible damages caused by the foam strike. The Board concluded that NASA’s decision making process with respect to safety and risk assessment was fundamentally flawed, and that it directly contributed to the disaster. The design of the thermal protection system itself was also criticized, with the report on the incident stressing that although foam had been seen tearing off during several past launches, the system was never designed to be strong enough to resist impact of these pieces.


Most interestingly, the Board report indicated that NASA could have mounted a repair or rescue mission had the agency taken the time to fully investigate the damage to the shuttle while it was in orbit. Shuttle Atlantis was in position to be launched on a mission to either pick up Columbia’s astronauts. Columbia’s crew may have also been able to repair the vessel in space using materials found inside the shuttle itself. Both scenarios were deemed risky, but possible, despite having been dismissed out of hand by NASA mission management at the time.