Investigating the Space Shuttle Columbia Tragedy


Douglas Osheroff, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and professor at Stanford University, will visit Northwestern on Monday May 3 to deliver a public lecture about his role on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The board was formed to determine what went wrong during the space shuttle's tragic re-entry to Earth in 2003. Medill Reports caught up with him to discuss his early science projects, the Nobel Prize, and a preview of his upcoming lecture.

You’ll be at Northwestern to talk about the Columbia accident. How did the board go about conducting such an investigation?
The first thing you need to ascertain is…the cause of the accident. I think in this case it was pretty clear. They realized that a large chunk of this very low-density foam—that insulates the external tank—had fallen off and had stuck somewhere near the leading edge, or under the left wing of Columbia. Some of the engineers had connections with the Department of Defense, and they put in an informal request for the DOD to use their satellite capabilities to image the left wing of Columbia. The woman who was in charge of the mission management team, she was really responsible for the lives of the astronauts when they were up there. The lab tried to make this request—she canceled it.

The space shuttle Columbia, shown here during takeoff, tragically exploded upon re-entry to Earth in 2003. (photo: NASA)The space shuttle Columbia, shown here during takeoff, tragically exploded upon re-entry to Earth in 2003. (photo: NASA)Were the astronauts aware of the failure?
They were told it simply couldn’t damage the orbiter. And of course, this was based on absolutely no tests at all. You’ve got something engineers estimate is going about 800 feet per second. That’s the velocity of a bullet coming out of a gun. The idea that the foam couldn’t cause any damage [at that speed] is nonsense.

Before you became involved with the shuttle investigation, you won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1996. Can you describe what it felt like to receive the Nobel?
The work for which I won the Nobel was work that I had actually done while I was still a graduate student [at Cornell University]. That was in '71-'72. I guess it was about 1976 that people began to tell me that they had nominated me for the Nobel Prize, which is a strict no-no, you’re not supposed to do that.

Not tell anyone?
Imagine what it’s like, year after year; people tell you that they’ve nominated you. And year after year, you get very nervous in early October, and then someone else gets the prize. So after a while I just said, 'Look, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. But it’s probably not going to happen, and even if it does, there is nothing I can do about it.' So actually, when the prize was given, I wasn’t even aware they’d started giving out the prizes.

You were playing with electrical motors when you were six years old. Tell us about that.
The first electric motor that I played with had been the motor in an electric train. I think that by the end of Christmas day I had taken this motor out of the locomotive. I think my father was particularly fascinated by my fascination with things electric.

Douglas Osheroff (photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)Douglas Osheroff (photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)And during your senior year you made an X-ray machine while other kids were trying to pass algebra.
Well, first of all, let me say that building an X-ray machine from scratch would be pretty hard. I visited three medical supply houses and explained that I wanted to build an X-ray machine for a science project. I think the car’s backseat and the trunk were just filled with old parts. And sure enough, I had all I needed to put together an X-ray machine—they’re not very complicated.

What’s the wildest thing you ever concocted at home?
I [gave] this talk in China and [said], 'When I was 11, I discovered gunpowder.' The Chinese are very possessive of gunpowder. I [said], 'You guys don’t understand what I’m saying. I discovered gunpowder…you guys invented it!' I was into rockets and bombs and, you know, everything. This is not uncommon. I know two Nobel laureates from my generation who have fingers missing because of experiments with gunpowder.

What would you describe as your proudest moment as a scientist?
I’d like to think that the proudest moment is when I suddenly understand something about how nature behaves. To me, tricking nature into giving up her secrets is what experimental science is all about.

Osherhoff's lecture, "NASA and the Columbia Shuttle Accident," will be held at 4:30 on Monday May 3rd in the Technological Institute's Ryan Auditorium, 2145 Sheridan Road, on Northwestern's Evanston campus. The event is free and open to the public. Click here for more information.


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