Down To Earth With A Bump


FALLOUT: A charred helmet from the Columbia in a Texas field

Long before the shuttle Columbia was destroyed on re-entry last month, NASA scientists had considered literally hundreds of problems that might threaten the craft's safety — and decided to launch anyway. Columbia had accumulated a thick sheaf of what the rocket business calls safety waivers — problems that NASA had noted but decided posed too small a risk to bother with.

"That's a pretty deep stack; it really is," one member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board told TIME. "A lot of these [waivers] are legitimate — every launch is going to have them — but others are...

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