What was NASA’s biggest failure?

What was NASA’s biggest failure?


Let’s take a look at NASA’s space shuttle program and the design of their craft. Moreover, a design containing inherent flaws. Flaws that would take the lives of brave American astronauts. 

Firstly, the Shuttle boosters are solid fueled so there is no separate fuel and oxidizer.

SRB Diagram

It’s a solid fuel, the oxidizer and the fuel become blended together and then cast in each of the four segments that make up each booster. When these boosters ignite, they are on and there is no turning them off.

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a crawler-transporter moves a mobile launcher platform with two solid rocket boosters perched on top from the Vehicle Assembly Building’s (VAB) High Bay 1 to High Bay 3. Inside the VAB, the boosters will be joined to an external fuel tank next month in preparation for space shuttle Endeavour’s STS-134 mission to the International Space Station targeted to launch in February, 2011

As a result, you are fully committed to the mission.

The fuel/oxidizer mixture burns creating heat and pressure because of the nozzle it must exit thru on the bottom of the booster. 

Moreover, the joints between the segments are under multiple stresses as the boosters and main engines push the whole mass upward. One of the joints flexed enough to allow the internal pressure and heat to escape the booster assembly. 

Static test firing, 1978

Unfortunately the escaping jet of flame was facing the fuel tank assembly for the main engines. The hydrogen tank became breached in the main engine tank assembly. I believe one of the attachment points for the booster also failed. The hydrogen tank let go and it took out the liquid oxygen tank and as a result, that was the end of this launch.

Many scientists’ first reaction upon seeing the design of this whole system was: 

“NASA is going to kill astronauts with this design!” 

As a result of having no practical way to escape if there’s a catastrophic problem. In addition, you’re riding with two uncontrolled solid fuel boosters strapped on your back. Furthermore the shuttles continued to have problems galore! Such as leaking O-rings, tiles falling off, foam falling off, all known problems and none of them fixed because for a while they were lucky.

Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) separation

What was NASA’s biggest failure?