The deadly launch of the Columbia space shuttle could have been aborted in time to save the crew, as soon as NASA spotted the large piece of foam that fell from it, but communications problems prevented the information from getting to the right people.

Retired Navy aviator John Macidull says it was the job of the Range Safety Officer at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral to observe the launch and report any problems to mission control. “Certainly the range safety officer would know,” Macidull says. “That’s his job.” But NASA’s engineers weren’t aware of the foam problem until they reviewed the videotape of the launch 24 hours after liftoff.

If the information been noted and passed on, there would have been plenty of time to abort the mission. Even if the initial rockets had been fired, the shuttle could have glided back to Earth or it could have landed in another country (and had a shorter trip home).

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