Wayne Hale continues his remembrances of the tragic events of ten years ago. This is the nut of the piece:
Sometime after Bob left my office, Linda and I had another short phone conversation in which she told me that Bob was an excitable guy. I had to agree; he was pretty excited. But it seemed to be justified, rather than a reason to downplay the concern. Then she delivered the sentence that would define the rest of the tragedy; a sentence that was repeated as common wisdom by almost every senior manager that I talked to over the next two weeks: ‘You know, if there was any real damage done to the wing, there is nothing we can do about it.’ As unsettling as that was, I had to agree; going back to the first shuttle flight it had been well known that there was no way to repair the heat shield in flight. Nobody, not even me, thought about a rescue mission. Why would we?
It reminds me of what I wrote at the time (or rather, a few days after the Columbia was lost):
Imagine that you’re an engineer at JSC. The Shuttle is up, and there’s no way to bring it back except the way it normally comes back — a hot entry, just as it was designed for. There’s no other way of getting the crew out of it, and there’s no realistic way to get supplies to them to extend their mission to buy time until you can some up with some way to save them. If there’s a problem, you have no realistic options.
Now, you’re asked to make an assessment, in the absence of any data except a launch video showing some insulation hitting the vehicle, as to whether or not the damage could be catastrophic. Others around you, whom you respect, are saying that it won’t be. You have a bad feeling, but you can’t prove anything with the available data.
What do you do? What’s the benefit, given that there’s no action that can be taken to alleviate the problem, in fighting to get people to recognize that we may have a serious problem?
Moreover, suppose that we do believe that there’s a problem.
Do we tell the crew? What can they do, other than make peace with their God and say goodbye to their families? Think about the scene toward the end of the movie Apollo XIII.
“Gene, we think they may be entering a little hot.”
“Anything we can do about it?”
“Then they don’t need to know, do they?”
It would make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to perform their experiments, knowing that they may be doomed at the end of it, and much of the results destroyed along with them, so if it turns out to be a false alarm, we ruined the mission.
It’s not hard for me to see how a group of smart people, all in the same situation, could reach a consensus that there’s not a problem.
The real problem is the fact that we send Shuttles off into the wilderness naked, with too few options.
This is also part of the theme of my book.