By Helen Briggs
BBC News Online science reporter
The report into the Columbia space shuttle disaster has
far-reaching implications for Nasa and will shape the future of
human space flight for decades to come.
wing was fatally damaged during lift-off
It could herald the biggest shake-up in policy since the end of
the Apollo Moon missions, when the US space agency first set its
sights on building the space shuttle.
Perhaps the most serious implication for the US space agency is
the criticism of its culture and management.
Similar concerns were raised after the 1986 Challenger disaster
and the reverberations look set to run even deeper this time around.
Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University,
Washington DC, expects the report to influence policy for at least
the next 30 years.
"The experience of the shuttle programme has shown how difficult
it is to maintain a high performance space programme within the
government for extended periods of time," he told BBC News Online.
"Heavy investment in a direct replacement for the space shuttle
could condemn the US to remain in low Earth orbit for the next 30
Nasa's policy after Apollo was to design and build a reusable
spacecraft. Columbia was the first such space shuttle to fly,
lifting off in 1981.
Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis were put into service in the
early 1980s but disaster struck in 1986 when Challenger was lost
together with its crew of seven astronauts.
The loss of Challenger shocked the nation and left Nasa's shuttle
programme in disarray.
The subsequent Presidential Commission report blamed a faulty
seal within the O-ring of a rocket motor for the accident.
It criticised internal communications within Nasa and called for
stricter safety controls.
During the Challenger inquiry, it emerged that Nasa managers had
failed to respond to last-minute warnings from engineers on risks.
Columbia broke up 15 minutes
Similar concerns surfaced during the Columbia investigations when
it was disclosed that ground engineers had sent e-mails warning
about the consequences of damage from foam striking the wing.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board has placed the blame
for the accident largely on flawed practices at Nasa.
It is convinced that the management practices overseeing the
Space Shuttle Programme were "as much a cause of the accident as the
foam that struck the left wing".
Peter Bond, space science advisor for the Royal Astronomical
Society in the UK, says the Columbia report is a milestone in the
"This is a major landmark from which Nasa has to adapt and evolve
and change the way it does things," he said.
"The future of Nasa's space programme will never be the same
Nobody is expecting the US to abandon human space flight
altogether. But there is bound to be renewed soul searching over its
commitment to the International Space Station (ISS) and the shuttles
that take astronauts and cargo into low-Earth orbit.
The shuttle is expected to take off again next summer, but under
Engineering modifications will have to be carried out so that
astronauts will be able to repair any damage caused to the shuttle
during the flight.
Missions will have to lift off during daylight hours, to allow
photographs to be taken to assess the risk of damage, and the
shuttle will have to be capable of docking with the ISS to allow the
crew to be rescued, if need be.
Construction work on the orbiting outpost is likely to remain on
hold for the foreseeable future and Nasa will have to think again
about how it will eventually replace the shuttle.
Nasa had planned to keep the remaining shuttles in operation
until 2020 but this strategy has been heavily criticised by the
It says it has no confidence that the space shuttle can be safely
operated for more than a few years.
There is no doubt that the Columbia report makes painful reading
for Nasa and its chief administrator Sean O'Keefe.
It will require a broader discussion of budget, policy and how to
replace the shuttle fleet.
Tough engineering and management challenges lie ahead. But like
any large organisation it is perhaps the question of internal
culture that will be the hardest for Nasa to address.