Sean Bennett / Staff reporter

During NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia’s launch, a large piece of foam fell off the booster rocket’s fuel tank and hit the wing of the shuttle, leaving it damaged and with a hole in it. On February 1, 2003, Columbia was returning to Earth from the ISS and atmospheric gases leaked through the hole into the wing, which caused the shuttle to explode and kill all seven astronauts. 

NASA’s Challenger shuttle exploded when it launched in 1986, making the Columbia the second space shuttle disaster, and led to NASA retiring the fleet of space shuttles in 2011 and trying to find a safer way to get to space and the ISS. Some private companies are also attempting to make safer and reusable rockets, like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Tesla founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX.  

Rockets built by SpaceX are remotely controlled and don’t have any passengers in them, making them much safer and less risky compared to NASA’s space shuttles. Without people in them, SpaceX can have a rocket fail or crash without risk to astronauts, and the only thing they would lose would be a rocket and maybe some supplies for the ISS. 

On December 5, 2018, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster rocket started spinning out and failed to properly touch down on the carrier boat it was supposed to land on due to it running out of the ignition fluid it needs to restart the rocket, but still landed safely in the ocean close to the ship it was supposed to land on. The rocket went through a “safing sequence” that vents out the rocket’s extra propellant to make it safe for humans to recover and approach it without it accidentally turning back on or exploding. It continued sending data and working and was recovered by the carrier and brought back to land. 

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of mission assurance at SpaceX says that the rocket has extra safety features that prevent it from landing on land unless the rocket is working properly and can automatically avoid buildings if it does have to make a ground landing. 

With less or no people on board the rockets, and with easier recovery, rockets now are a lot safer and have a much smaller risk than earlier rockets.