Last updated June 5, 2020 at 5:37 pm
NASA’s return to space after the Columbia disaster was “ugly” and fraught with internal arguments and mistrust, says Charles Camarda – a NASA astronaut who flew on the mission.
Why This Matters: There is a right way to bounce back from disaster, without creating another.
After 907 days of silence, NASA’s first crewed space mission following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster roared into the Florida sky on 26 July 2005. Onboard was Mission Specialist Charles Camarda.
“What would happen to the space program if we lost another crew? I would seriously doubt the United States would have been jumping up and down to maintain a human space flight program,” he says of the importance of STS-114, NASA’s Return-To-Flight mission.
After gaining his engineering degree from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, Camarda began work at NASA’s Langley Research Center, and later added a PhD from Virginia Tech. Working in thermal structures, he conducted research and testing of heat and structural mechanics for aircraft, spacecraft and space launch vehicles.
Selected to join the Astronaut program in 1996, he was training in Russia when Columbia exploded re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
“I was so angry. I was shocked,” says Camarda of hearing the news. It wasn’t until much later he was told he would be on board the first crewed mission.
“We felt very responsible (for the astronauts who would follow),” says Camarda. “It was very important to us to be successful, and to make sure the methods and what we learned we could pass on to the next crew.”
While no longer an active astronaut, he has remained within NASA as a Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Office of Chief Engineer at NASA’s Headquarters. However, that experience of Columbia and the Return-To-Flight mission inspired Camarda to establish the EPIC Education Foundation.
The EPIC Challenge aims to transform education and inspire students in STEM by challenging them to form teams and develop real solutions to real-world major problems.
“Failure is so important to what we do. And we beat it out of the children at school, they have to get only one answer and it’s this answer, that’s the correct answer,” explains Camarda. “Life isn’t like that. Most problems that we solve have many solutions, and there are ways to fail.”
“You’re beating the joy out of learning. And you’re driving these kids away from learning and teaching themselves.”
“So I try to teach students and engineers the right way to fail.”