Saturday, July 30, 2011

Death Of The White Elephant: Part II

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.


  1. I was pretty mad when the Columbia disaster happened. After that I was kinda shocked they kept flying them as long as they did...

  2. it was very important for them to complete the ISS before crashing it into the pacific. had it been unfinished when they finally fessed up to it being the grandmother of all white elephants they might have looked a bit silly.

  3. Kat, since being just a kid who actually heard the voice of sputnik over the radio I’ve been fully aware space travel to be a risky business; as it still is today. That said I would also admit to being as horrified as anyone, if not more so then most, when I witnessed live the Challenger explode before my eyes. However unlike most , I was not surprised it could have happened, yet rather deeply saddened when it did. Thus if I was fully aware of this truth, I would suggest that all of the non civilian astronauts had no delusions about the safety of what they were doing, as if anything they would be as plugged in as you at the time or probably more so. As for the civilians I can only speculate much the same or at the very least they knew it wasn’t to be equated with being a walk in the park.

    So while I would agree the shuttle was a flawed vision, as not truly extending our horizons, yet rather squandering the resources that could have had this done better. However I would totally disagree it was flawed because it presented unreasonable risk, as trail blazing has always been and will always be for the not faint of heart, yet rather for those having the strongest ones. So if and when the U.S. decides again to have people involved in our reach for the stars; not serving as props, yet rather as true players, I will be among those who will cheer them on. That is as me knowing those who choose the danger represent what little there is found to be uniquely good about our species; as having not just their dreams, yet those of others, being more important than even their lives.

    ”This is a day we have managed to avoid for a quarter of a century.”

    -John Glenn, “spoken at the time of the Challenger disaster”

  4. Curious that Sen. Glenn would ignore the Apollo 1 launch-pad fire.

  5. See I just don't buy this "reaching for The Stars as a noble cause" concept. In fact it's the central pillar of the con. We're not destined to go to the stars and pretending that we are is a dangerous combination of vanity and lies.

  6. Kat, I would suggest from Glenn perspective there is a distinction to be made between testing systems and pressing the launch button; of course that would be principally only a perception of a trail blazer and not one generally held by those who after walk in safety the trails they helped to have blazed.

    However as I mentioned to you elsewhere, I don’t hold much hope for changing your perception, as I would suggest you have little change in changing mine. However, as I claimed before I find mine to be in good company, such as being shared by the likes of Freedman Dyson, whom we talked about earlier and Gerald t’Hooft; to name but a few. That is as all of us realizing that if space exploration is not for those who have it attempted; then for whom does it serve? I would also wonder are you not at least somewhat concerned that your certainty regarding our potential and destiny might be equated by some to present the same of those found as wrong in such regard in relation to the past.

  7. Reaching any conclusion and holding any opinion runs the risk of being proven wrong. I'm just lining up the facts as I have them and concluding that we'll destroy ourselves before interstellar travel becomes possible. I'd be happy to be wrong. However if I could get a bet down it would be that if an intelligent being from our planet reached a planet around another star the intelligent being in question would not have a pulse.

  8. Kat, are you suggesting that it might be found that such a being as just one of an elite group of poker players.

  9. I had a job then that made me work Saturdays with Tuesdays off. So like Phil I witnessed the Challenger disaster in real time. I remember thinking pre-launch "Hey if they're de-icing the engines because the temp got down to 32 degrees that morning, that launching would be a bad idea. I figured cooler heads would prevail the launch of this particular STS would be delayed a 10th time.

    Apparently, Reagan's spinmaster Ed Meese had other ideas. You see Kat, Reagan was scheduled to give his annual State of The Nation address the following Monday, and they very much wanted Reagan to get credit for launching the first teacher in space. Political pressure <==== the source of most problems.

  10. Steve, I must admit to have never heard before that angle being put on the story; although it wouldn’t be the first or last time for people lives to be risked so that a leader might grand stand as a result. On the other hand, I have little faith that turning the exploration of space over primarily to private enterprise will either serve to decrease the risk or have a change to increase efficiencies or tangible results.

    If we look to what became required for the exploration of our own planet, it was centuries before governments didn’t play a central role in having this accomplished; and arguably they still do. The thing is, the more difficult the goal the more the unification and consolidation of people and resource is required. As I’ve often said it might have been foretold that the meek will inherit the earth; yet that didn’t include the claim it would be them who would have it had as to be inherited.

    Now if you want my honest opinion as to why manned exploration has ground to a halt forms to be understood resultant of the type of media we have today as it relates to the audience it fosters, punctuated by an ever decreasing attention span coupled with having an ever increasingly distorted perception of reality; that’s in so far as what’s required as to having a worthwhile one.

    “He is the best man who, when making his plans, fears and reflects on everything that can happen to him, but in the moment of action is bold.”

  11. Another possibility is that manned exploration has ground to a halt because there's nowhere worth going.

  12. Kat, the only key player for which this is currently a reality is only the U.S. I find this sad as in terms of their anthem, meant to be reflective of their national conscious they describe themselves as being the land of brave and free. Mind you, I rather think brave should have been bold and yet both America’s freedom and boldness are diminishing; such I find it’s appropriate to wonder how and why.

  13. When humans redesign ourselves, in a few hundred years, such that 300 degrees below zero is considered balmy, that we can breath nitrogen, and that methane snow tastes good, we will settle Titan. :-)

  14. You are quite possibly the most fascinating man I have ever met.

  15. Based on today's events I have decided to change species.