Columbia, other shuttles have history of tech glitches

Columbia and other space shuttles have a history of computer glitches that have been linked to control systems, including left-wing steering controls, but NASA officials say it is too early to determine whether those glitches could have played any role in Saturday's shuttle disaster.

While suspicions about the cause of the crash of Columbia center on the spacecraft's left wing and the possibility that it could have been damaged during launch, a NASA spokesperson said it is too early in the investigation to determine if a malfunction in any of the space shuttle's five redundant control computers contributed to the craft's breakup.

However, Columbia and other space shuttles have experienced a series of control computer failures during the past two decades, including one that had a direct link to the spacecraft's left-wing control systems.

During a March 1996 return flight, NASA officials discovered a computer circuit problem that controlled steering hardware on Columbia's left wing. The computer circuit was responsible for controlling the spacecraft's left rudder, flaps and other critical landing functions.

Speaking at a news conference prior to Columbia's landing in 1996, NASA spokesman Rob Navius downplayed the seriousness of the computer problem. "There are three additional paths of data that are up and running in perfect shape, and there's multiple redundancy that would permit a safe landing," he said. Although Columbia landed without incident, NASA officials said in news accounts at the time that the failure was significant enough that, had it happened earlier in the flight, the agency would likely have ordered the shuttle home early.

NASA was also forced in 1983 to delay a landing by Columbia for several hours because of the failure of two onboard control computers. According to an Air Force study of early space shuttle flights, the problem was significant. After the two general-purpose computers failed, "only one of the two computers could be reinitiated," according to the Air Force study, "The Cape: Military Space Operations 1971 - 1992."

In fact, the failure of Columbia's computers was serious enough to force the flight director to wave off the planned de-orbit and reschedule the landing to give officials time to study the computer problem. Columbia landed seven hours and 48 minutes later than scheduled.

Commercial off-the-shelf computer technologies, both hardware and software, form the centerpiece of the space shuttle's command, control, communications and navigation system. And while multiple redundancies have been designed into each system, former shuttle astronauts interviewed on television after the Saturday crash said that any failure in the autopilot that caused a sudden change in the orientation of Columbia during re-entry could be a factor in the disaster.

NASA designed the shuttle to be controlled almost totally by onboard computer hardware and software systems. It found that direct manual intervention was impractical for handling the shuttle during ascent, orbit or re-entry because of the required precision of reaction times, systems complexity and size of the vehicle. According to a 1991 report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, "sequencing of certain shuttle events must occur within milliseconds of the desired times, as operations 10 to 400 milliseconds early or late could cause loss of crew, loss of vehicle, or mission failure."

That same report criticized NASA for canceling independent verification of the shuttle software.

A computer problem plagued the very first Columbia mission, STS-1, on April 12, 1981. In an obscure article for the magazine ACM Software Engineering Notes titled "The Bug Heard Round the World," John R. Garman, the deputy chief of the Spacecraft Software Division at the Johnson Space Center, detailed problems with onboard computer system that caused each computer to believe it was a different time of day.

Columbia isn't the only shuttle to have experienced problems with onboard computer systems. A 1985 launch of the space shuttle Discovery was delayed when the spacecraft's four main computers sent test commands to a fifth backup system and failed twice.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Dan Verton

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

David Coyle

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

I rate the printer as a 5 out of 5 stars as it has been able to fit seamlessly into my busy and mobile lifestyle.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?