Inaugural Event - March 9, 2004

"The Columbia Accident Investigation
and the Future of Human Space Flight"

Prof. Doug Osheroff, Ph.D.

Stanford University Physicist
Co-recipient of the
1996 Nobel Prize in Physics

Professor Osheroff, Stanford University Physics Department Chair and Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, served on the 13-member Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) that probed the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in February 2003. (The full text of the report can be found on the CAIB web site, which also includes appendices such as videos.)  Professor Osheroff described how the Board determined early on the physical cause of the accident: a breach in the Thermal Protection System caused by a piece of insulating foam which separated from the External Tank shortly after launch.  The Board decided to examine the conditions that allowed the accident to happen, in particular in view of the fact that dropping foam had been a known and recurrent issue.  One of the Board's conclusions was that the accident was rooted in NASA's organizational and cultural problems.  The discussion period of the Café focused on questions about the future of the Shuttle program and of manned space exploration.  Professor Osheroff said that a manned exploration of Mars was not likely to produce scientific results worth the $1 trillion estimated cost.  He stressed that NASA should concentrate on further developing its excellent robotics technology.  The discussion was animated and often humorous, and Professor Osheroff ended the evening by giving a talented rendition of "Reincarnation", a Cow Boy poem by Wallace McRae! (The poem can be found at
Photo credit: Barbara Murphy-Wesley, Roche Palo Alto and Ramachandran R. Thirucote, Roxro Pharma