And of course, NASA should be embarrassed, even ashamed of itself about it. That seems to be the subtext of this media roundup by Keith Cowing about the safety panel that reported yesterday on progress in getting Shuttle ready to start flying again.
Of course, as is often the case when it comes to space (and sadly, other) reporting, it’s the media who should be embarrassed. If they had had a little more technical competence at the time, they would have pointed out that some of the CAIB recommendations were technically unrealistic, and that Sean O’Keefe was foolish to pledge to meet them all. This was, in fact, the first point at which it was becoming clear that he was the wrong man in the job. He had no reputation for being technical, but one of four conditions must have applied:
- He didn’t know that the recommendations were impractical, but assumed that because they came from smart people, they must be, and made the pledge without consultation.
- He didn’t know, but asked some of his staff, and they told him they were.
- He didn’t know, but asked and was told they weren’t, but felt politically compelled to do so anyway.
- He knew himself and did it anyway for the same reason.
I’m not sure which of the four is worse–having an administrator who made the pledge cluelessly, or one who made it knowingly, perhaps because he thought that it was important to do so to maintain public support for the agency, in the face of apparent public anxiety over killing astronauts, who are apparently more precious and irreplaceable than babes in arms. I think that it was another symptom, like the misbegotten Hubble decision, of his inability to deal with tragedies occurring on his watch.
He was a good administrator for a pre-Columbia era, but not for a post-Columbia one. And the problem is that one never knows when one era can change to the next. In this case, it happened in a few brief minutes over the skies of Texas. He remained afterward for almost two years, which was far too long, but it was a difficult situation politically–forcing him out early would have made it appear that what happened was his fault, which it really wasn’t. I’m sure that he felt that he had to see the investigation through, and then oversee the beginning of the development of the president’s new policy.
In any event, I’m heartened to see that both the safety panel (consisting of astronauts) and the new administrator are being more realistic about this now, and press carping on the issue looks foolish to me.
[Update on Thursday morning–yes, I am busy…]
Professor Reynolds has some related thoughts.