A lot of people who work for NASA aren't very bright.
In the first installment of this obituary I accused NASA of telling fibs. Since NASA isn't an individual this requires some elaboration. As I'll explain below, what I'm really talking about is an institutional culture of deceit and delusion, the negative results of which range from compounding scientific illiteracy to people dying.
In the Fall of 1985 I started my graduate work at Queen Mary College, London. This opened many doors including the one to the departmental lounge. Morning coffee and afternoon tea provided a remarkable opportunity to hear what some very clever people were saying. These people included senior personnel from various satellite and solar system missions including IRAS, Voyager, Galileo and Cassini.
One afternoon the conversation meandered to the topic of the safety of the Shuttle. Three professors with considerable expertise in such matters gave their estimates for the likelihood of "catastrophic failure." Two independently arrived at a failure rate of 1 mission in a 100. The third said he felt that was optimistic and that before the Shuttle had begun operations he had predicted a failure rate of 1 in 25. However, since the Shuttle had already survived more than 20 missions he had adopted a Bayesian approach and upped his failure estimate to 1 in 50.
This didn't seem to me to be possible. Partly because Dawn, my future-first-ex-wife, was a school teacher, I was aware that in a couple of months the "Teacher in Space Flight" launch was scheduled. Teaching in an inner London school was certainly a dangerous profession, but Dawn's expectation of returning home on any given day was much better than 1 in 100.
I asked the assembled experts how NASA could contemplate putting a civilian in such peril.
"NASA senior managers estimate a 1 in 100,000 catastrophic failure rate," replied one. His two colleagues nodded.
"And you get 1 in 100?" I said.
"Give or take."
Several years after this conversation I read Richard Feynman's account of his work on the Rogers Commission that investigated the loss of Challenger. It gave me goosebumps. Because the criminally dysfunctional mess that was NASA, and that Feynman "discovered," was well known to the three professors at my college and anyone else who had been exposed to the inner workings of the agency.
So how could NASA's senior managers come up with estimated failure rates completely divorced from those of their own engineers (who they ignored) and reality (which is a place other people live)? Part of it is they had no choice. Now... okay this may not make any sense unless, like me, you've worked for these people, but... NASA's senior managers were compelled to assume a microscopically low failure rate of 1 in 100,000 because if they accepted a realistic estimate they would have no choice but to ground the Shuttle.
Actually, even if you have worked for NASA, this idea doesn't make any sense in isolation. You also have to understand something I'll expand upon in Part III: A lot of people who work for NASA aren't very bright.
A couple of months after this coffee-room conversation, Challenger was destroyed. Dawn and I got back from shopping and as we unpacked I turned on the TV to catch the evening news. The first shot I absorbed was of two solid rocket boosters curving away from a single trail that terminated abruptly in a roughly spherical cloud.
"I suppose they all died instantly," said Dawn, blinking damply at the screen as the 73 second flight was replayed.
It was a couple of hours after the "major malfunction" and news pundits had already enhanced some critical video clips. Something pertinent to Dawn's not uncommon supposition was readily apparent. Whatever the cause of the "explosion" it had left the SRBs relatively undamaged. Further, interest had already concentrated on a plume near the rear of the vehicle. You didn't have to be a rocket science to realize that the location of the apparent failure combined with the lack of damage to the SRBs made it quite likely that the crew cabin had survived the explosion.
"I'm afraid they probably didn't," I said to Dawn.
We still don't know for sure. The Kerwin report concluded:
"[T]he crew possibly, but not certainly, lost consciousness in the seconds following Orbiter breakup due to in-flight loss of crew module pressure."
This conclusion may have been sanitized for public consumption. Lead NASA investigator Robert Overmyer was convinced at least some of the crew were not only alive as the crew module plunged towards the ocean, they were also conscious. Based on the positioning of certain flight switches, Overmyer concluded:
"Scob [Commander Dick Scobee] fought for any and every edge to survive. He flew that ship without wings all the way down... They were alive."
This raises a key question. Wouldn't it have been a good idea for the Shuttle to have some kind of escape hatch or ejector seats or something? You know, like other experimental aircraft and spacecraft.
But that would be silly, wouldn't it? The Shuttle didn't need an escape facility. The expected failure rate was 1 in 100,000.
The full and well-documented story of exactly how badly NASA screwed up is beyond the scope of my musings here. Anyone who has read Feynman's account of his investigations may, like me, have been driven to angry tears by the sheer stupidity and negligence of senior NASA personnel. The fact nobody was ever convicted of crimes relating to the death of the crew is only unsurprising because we expect so little accountability from senior personnel in federal agencies.
But at least the thorough investigation into the Challenger disaster made it clear that those seven individuals did not die in vain. The culture of deceit and delusion at NASA would be changed so that such an "accident" could never happen again.
When an equally avoidable accident did happen again, I decided I didn't want to play with rockets any more.