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« On The Verge In Pyongyang? | Main | A Key Part Of The Space Solution »

Peer Pressure

There's some really great commentary (by my readers, not necessarily by me) in this post, particularly toward the bottom, that may contain the key not to what happened to Columbia, but how NASA fooled themselves into believing that it was going to be OK after they saw the launch video.

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.

That's almost certainly tomorrow's Fox News column.

[Update at 9:10 PM PST]

Dave Himrich agrees, and presciently, he did it on Saturday.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 05, 2003 04:57 PM
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I think you have this analysis exactly right. Under the circumstances of the Columbia mission, engineers would have to be able to make a very strong case for catastrophic damage in order to justify any of the various risky adventures that might have saved the crew or the vehicle. And the ability to gather the information needed for the very strong case simply does not exist.

This is different than the situation of the Challenger launch, I think. In that case, there were engineers at Thiokol and perhaps elsewhere that had a strong case against launching under the forecast temperature conditions. They were inept at presenting what they had in a convincing way, and NASA hierarchy were feeling pressured by Dan Rather and others making fun of them for scrubbing launches. I think the latter problem has been solved, but perhaps not the former.

Posted by Dave Himrich at February 5, 2003 08:30 PM

Spot on analysis, Rand. Of course, it may be moot if they find it wasn't the insulation, but a debris strike that doomed Columbia.

Oh, and you may want to double check, I think you left a bold tag open.

Posted by Justin Gibb at February 6, 2003 06:19 AM

Rand, I think you may have meant to refer to Columbia instead of Challenger in today's "Peer Pressure" post. And thanks for the compliment regarding the commentary.

Posted by gojou at February 6, 2003 08:32 AM

Whoops: incomplete thought. I meant to type " may have meant to refer to Columbia instead of Challenger in the first paragraph of today's PP post.


Posted by gojou at February 6, 2003 08:33 AM

Damned insightful, Rand.

But I'm probably biased. Believe it or not, I actually began a paper in January on the dysfunctional management culture at the NASA-aerospace contractor complex.

Your comments are along the lines of things that I saw at Goddard.

The paper will be much longer and show other things as well.

Posted by Chuck Divine at February 6, 2003 09:56 AM

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