The Long View 2003-02-03: The Columbia Disaster

It isn't hard to be critical of NASA for the Columbia disaster, no one is going to make a movie about how well the space agency handled the situation. However, the bit about spending lots of money to design a pen that worked in space is half-true. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at NASA before giving up, and then a pen manufacturer developed one that he sold for a modest price, a few dollars. [$4 at the time, about $30 now adjusted for inflation]

The Columbia Disaster
 
Ron Dittemore, the space-shuttle project manager, gave an obviously stressful press conference yesterday. At several points, he addressed the question of why NASA did not determine with certainty the condition of the heat-shield tiles, even though NASA was aware they might have been damaged on lift-off by insulation foam from the fuel tank. He explained that large telescopes on Earth could not have taken satisfactory images of the area in question. He did not make clear whether the crew had the equipment to go outside and look for themselves. He did say the crew could not have fixed damage to the tiles even if they had discovered any. Here is a characteristic passage from the news conference:
"The predominant team will be the engineering teams related to the orbiter vehicle itself. And the types of disciplines are structures and mechanics, integration teams that understand the environment and the transport mechanisms between the external tank and the wing orbiter. You have thermal experts, tile experts and it goes on and on...[W]e also engage the operational functional areas: the astronaut corps, our operations flight control arena, our safety and quality and mission assurance experts...And all these people were engaged. All of them heard the story. All of them reviewed it to their satisfaction.. And the consensus, unanimous consensus was as I represented to you earlier, it was not a significant event."
Now consider this excerpt from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, about Gulliver's visit to the flying island of Laputa:
"Those to whom the king had entrusted me, observing how ill I was clad, ordered a tailor to come next morning, and take measure for a suit of clothes. This operator did his office after a different manner from those of his trade in Europe. He first took my altitude by a quadrant, and then, with a rule and compasses, described the dimensions and outlines of my whole body, all which he entered upon paper; and in six days brought my clothes very ill made, and quite out of shape, by happening to mistake a figure in the calculation. But my comfort was, that I observed such accidents very frequent, and little regarded."
Would that all accidents were so trivial.
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How shall I put this? The point of having human beings in space is that they can handle the unexpected. Sending out a crewman to check the hull for damage is precisely the kind of thing that crewmen are for. It must take years of miseducation to reach a point where the obvious way to examine the skin of a ship is to use a telescope 300 miles away. Even if the crew could not have fixed the tiles, was it really impossible to prolong the flight until relief or resupply could be arranged? If the resources of the shuttle were really so close to exhaustion, then could the shuttle have docked at the International Space Station? Again, isn't that sort of improvisation what human space-flight is supposed to be about?
[After I posted this, a friendly reader, Brett Thomas, emailed to point out that the Columbia did not have suits for extravehicular activity, and it did not have a docking hatch to use with the space station. As he also pointed out, they might have used the suits at the station to ferry the Columbia's crew. The station crew could, of course, have also checked the tiles. Fuel to get to the station would have been the only decisive question.]
NASA is a blocked and damned organization, the kind of institution that Northcote Parkinson used to skewer. These are the people who spent $25 billion to build expendable skyscrapers to fly to the moon so that fighter pilots could "explore" it for a few hours. These are the people who spent tens of thousands of dollars to design a ballpoint pen that could work in space, until someone mentioned that the Russians used pencils.
And then there is the shuttle itself: the horse designed by a committee. It was supposed to be a taxi for quick manned access to space. It was supposed to be simple, modest in size, completely reusable. Most important of all, it was supposed to require only a small ground crew. After years of demands from institutional science and the military, it grew in size and number of functions until it was nearly as unstable as an early version of Windows. A small city is needed to keep the shuttle flying, at long intervals, and at some risk.
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NASA does for manned space travel what the UN does for world order: the result of all the activity is to ensure that there will be less of the desired product.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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