30 January 2006


The Apollo fire, Challenger explosion, and Columbia breakup all occurred around the same time of year, which is why NASA had a day of remembrance last week.

I was alive for only the latter two, and out of elementary school for only the last, so I don't have a lot to remember other than sitting dumbfounded at the honors student council retreat, having just hung up with a friend who had told me what happened to Columbia.

But I think the take-away message needs to be something I read in the CAIB report: Prove that it is safe, not that it isn't.

As an example, engineers requested images of Columbia's wing leading edge, but since she didn't have the capability to take the images via robotic arm and the astronauts were nowhere near the ISS, either an additional unplanned EVA or DoD imaging would have been necessary. Managers vetoed the requests based on the complications of adding an EVA and/or going through the DoD for imagery, because the engineers couldn't prove that the images were necessary. But if the managers had said, "Prove that it is safe to reenter," then the engineers would have gotten their images.

The other message I'd like to offer: Risk is inherent in exploration. To quote Wayne Hale, "The most important thing is - to go."

I know these messages seem contradictory, but there's a difference between the inherent risk of launching a vehicle into LEO and the risk of, for example, allowing foam strike events to become a normal part of launch.

I've written and rewritten this post a dozen times, and I'm still not happy with it, but I don't want to let this time of year go unremarked on my blog. I'm not very good at verbalizing my feelings on this issue, since I'm torn in several different directions: a firm belief that space exploration is a worthy goal, a nagging suspicion that NASA may not be the best organization for the job, a loyal desire to defend NASA against its detractors, a cynical awareness that loss of life is inevitable, a heartfelt sorrow for the families of those who were lost, and any number of other feelings I can't isolate. Feel free to ask for clarification in the comments.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dad worked for Brown engineering in 1967 (Werner von Braun's company). I remember him telling me about Grissom, White and Chaffee (I was 8). He took it hard, they all did. I remember years later him telling me that Grissom could be a son of a bitch to the contractors, but it was because he wanted to get it right.

It wasn't right.

Dave in Texas

6:49 PM  
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