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"Ignorance is bliss." "See no evil, hear no evil."

How often have we heard those old aphorisms? In many cases, they actually make sense.

There is a disease, named Huntington's Chorea. As the link says, "Genetically, it is an autosomal dominant disorder with complete penetrance." In laymen's terms, that means that it is a genetic defect. If you have it, you will get the disease, and it will be a long and terrible road, including progressive loss of bodily control and increasing dementia, until death. The only uncertainty is when it will first appear. It can occur at any age, but mostly it strikes in the prime of life.

There is a test that can be performed to determine whether or not one carries the ominous gene. Some, whose ancestors carried the gene, or even died of the disease itself, and are thus at risk, choose to take it. Others do not.

There are some genetic diseases that it's important to diagnose early, because genetics isn't always destiny--often a simple change in diet can result in a long and healthy life.

But for Huntington's, from a medical standpoint, there is no right choice as to whether or not to take the test--knowledge that you are so doomed can do nothing to stave off the inevitable, since there's currently no known prophylactic treatment (that is, there's nothing that can be done about it that can't be done after the syndrome itself becomes apparent). Some, however, want to know, so that they might incorporate the knowledge into planning their life.

On the other hand, many choose the blissful ignorance. Since there's really nothing they can do about it, they prefer to live life in the uncertainty. Like the popular notion of the cat in Schroedinger's poison box, that is both dead and alive simultaneously, they live in a netherworld of neither sick nor ill until actually diagnosed, and in the optimistic hope that they won't come down with it. Who is to say that their choice is wrong?

In most cases, of course, ignorance is not bliss at all. There's an accompanying saying about "living in a fool's paradise."

It all depends on the degree to which the knowledge allows us to avoid bad outcomes.

Daniel Dennett recently wrote a book about (among other things) avoidance of bad outcomes. The ability to do so has evolved, and it's what sets the higher animals, particularly conscious ones, apart from simpler organisms.

There are many contrapositive words in English that don't have the positive versions. Have you ever heard someone praised as particularly "ane" or "ept"? Or working hard to keep their employees "gruntled"?

A similar one is "evitable." We're all familiar with the concept of something that is inevitable, or unavoidable, but man has clawed himself up to his present state by learning how to avoid bad outcomes--to make them, in a word, increasingly "evitable."

One of the reasons that our space program is in such a box is that we haven't paid enough attention to evitability. It's starting to look more and more as though, once the Columbia launched in mid January, and suffered damage to the leading edge of its left wing, its destruction on entry was inevitable. Yesterday, yet another NASA memo came to light that some had recognized this, but not passed it up the line.

While this may seem like malfeasance if true, consider the mindset and assumptions that may have laid behind such a decision.

I've written before on the fact that low earth orbit remains a wilderness, into which the shuttle orbiter must be self sufficient in whatever state it departed the earth. There are no maintenance facilities, no motels for the crew to stay at while vehicles are inspected and repaired, so they can return safely to earth.

Because we launched the orbiter into such a wilderness, given its design, its fate was sealed shortly after launch. Imagine yourself in the position of someone at NASA. You know that, if the thermal protection system is damaged, then the orbiter--a quarter of our Shuttle fleet, and seven gallant crew--is doomed, and there's no realistic backup plan. Like a Huntington's Chorea candidate, do you want to run the test? What would you do with a positive result?

Early in the mission, the crew will have two weeks to do nothing except think about their impending fate, and it's unlikely that any useful science will be performed. Late in the mission, they could do nothing except make peace with their god, and say goodbye to their loved ones.

While it's tragic in retrospect that the crew didn't have the opportunity to do that, it's understandable, and human, that NASA officials wanted to avoid having to deal with the unavoidable, that is, the inevitable. In such a situation, groupthink could certainly set in that would make it difficult to break bad news to management, when all knew that it was hopeless if the fatal diagnosis was correct.

The fault lies not with twenty-first-century engineers under the pressure of having to assess and diagnose a situation, that they were helpless to resolve as a result of decisions made decades earlier, but in the fundamental philosophy of our space program, that eventually consigned a crew and vehicle to fiery death and destruction.

Dennett points out that humanity's freedom of action is a result of an evolutionary process that has gradually opened up a virtual explosion of "evitability," a plethora of options for avoiding catastrophe.

Our limited vision of space activities, in which a few astronauts are launched on a fragile vehicle a few times a year, has dramatically constrained the evitability of the new frontier. Disaster has been inevitable. Its rarity is due not to any wisdom in planning or range of options on our part, but only because we do so little, and have so few opportunities.

Until, as we have on earth, we take an entirely new approach to space development, taming the orbital wilderness with a robust infrastructure that can provide safe havens for our people, and facilities for inspecting and repairing our vital transports, we will remain vulnerable to fatal diagnoses for which we have no cure.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 26, 2003 08:22 PM
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Bravo. Incrementalism, or breakthroughs? The choice is ours ...

Posted by Jay Manifold at February 27, 2003 03:07 AM

For those who haven't seen it, CBS News is running what is essentially a weblog of STS-107 news at
The page itself is uncredited, but I've seen some of the material posted elsewhere credited to Bill Harwood.


Posted by Jim Ancona at February 27, 2003 05:46 AM

What exactly was the point?

I know a number of families afflicted with the Huntington's curse, and there's nothing worse. On the happy side, one young woman in her early 20's went through counseling and had the genetic test done after her mother developed Huntington's . . . . and the young woman was found not to have the genetic marker for the disease. SHE now gets to live the rest of her life worry-free.

On the Columbia orbiter, I absolutely do not understand the idea that it was in any sense better for the crew not to know since "nothing could have been done, at all."

I've read that an Atlantis reentry two years ago was altered in an attempt to lower the thermal load on its damaged right wing. That may or may not be true; if true, I'd very much like to know the temperature readings from the sensors on each Atlantis wing. But even outside the Atlantis reentry . . . . . . . . if you knew the left wing was very seriously damaged, you ought to have all of the brightest minds in the U.S. actively engaged for 24 or 48 or 72 hours working as creatively as possible on some new idea. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I'm not willing to accept that there wasn't some creative adjustment to be made or tried to improve the chances of the Columbia above the odds derived from a standard steady-as-she-goes reentry.

Posted by Anarchus at February 27, 2003 07:25 AM

I'm afraid I have to agree with Anarchus.

The NASA that brought Apollo 13 home would have tried everything conceivable to get those people home safely, and to keep them alive in orbit as long as possible if not.

NASA increasingly should stand for Need Another Space Agency.

Posted by Dean Esmay at February 27, 2003 09:10 AM

That's not fair. While I'm no fan of NASA, given the situation, the NASA of 1970 could have done no more for that crew than today's. Apollo XIII had a lot of resources, and a lot of time to work with. Yes, if they'd decided they had a problem right after lunch, they would have had a couple of weeks to work the problem, but even now, with all of the hindsight, there were no realistic options once the system was in orbit, given the fundamental design of the vehicle, the equipment they had on orbit, and most importantly our frustrating inability to get to and from orbit routinely.

My point is that NASA should be criticized for putting the vehicle into a situation in which it was impossible to save it (a consequence of decisions made decades ago), not for anything that happened post launch.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 27, 2003 10:02 AM

Even if NASA had waited until the day before reentry to decide it had a problem, the orbiter would still have been good in orbit for a few more days before running out of oxygen, etc.

The constraint then becomes resupply. The shuttle couldn't move out of the orbit it was in; true enough, but would it have been totally hopeless to attempt to resupply the shuttle with one of the Progress M-1 craft used to resupply the Space Station? Granted there's no docking mechanism and just making contact would be difficult, but if you were a can-do astronaut, wouldn't you want to try?

Posted by Anarchus at February 27, 2003 10:19 AM

would it have been totally hopeless to attempt to resupply the shuttle with one of the Progress M-1 craft used to resupply the Space Station?

Yes, totally hopeless. We simply don't have the capability to integrate a payload and launch a vehicle that quickly, and the Russians have no capability to get to the orbit that Columbia was in.

This is discussed in the FAQ.

Posted by at February 27, 2003 10:24 AM

Ok, so the Columbia was @ 39 degrees and Baikonur can't get below 50 degrees . . . . . . . would it have been physically impossible to move Russian equipment to another launch location?

Posted by Anarchus at February 27, 2003 10:36 AM

"Move launch equipment"? Read the FAQ.

I'm sorry, but there are some problems that just don't have solutions. Life isn't always fair.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 27, 2003 10:39 AM

Should've stuck with Dyna-Soar. And I don't own any Boeing stock: X-20

"Dyna Soar actually reached the full-scale engineering mockup stage before it was canceled in December 1963 - a major blunder for American techno-logical leadership in space."

What's wrong with "gruntle" and "adept."

Posted by at February 27, 2003 11:12 AM

Well, actually I was thinking of the opposite of inept...

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 27, 2003 11:30 AM

"Well, actually I was thinking of the opposite of inept..."

Apt. :-)

Can't get anyone to buy into Dyna-Soar and it's all JFK's fault. Ford-face McNamara killed it off.

That program would at least have explored the almost-space regions we're frying in now. An incremental approach. What exactly did leaping to the moon get us but some big bills to pay?

Posted by D Anghelone at February 27, 2003 06:24 PM

While there is no real treatment for Huntington's there is an imporving ability to select eggs and sperms that don't carry the defective gene. Being able to have children with a clear conscience on that front is a great advance, in my opinion.

Like a lot of genetic diseases, it might be nearly eliminated by that process before anything like a genetic fix for those already born becomes a reality.

Posted by Eric Pobirs at February 27, 2003 09:06 PM

Here's the flaw in your logic as I see it, Rand: Your Huntington's victim decides for himself whether to learn his ultimate fate; the right to make that decision for themselves was taken from the Columbia astronauts. Had Mission Control contacted them with the message, "We have bad you want to hear it?", do you believe they would have replied in the negative? Of course not. Those folks knew and accepted the risk inherent in what they did. If it was known for certain that they were to die, they had the right to be told about it and to do whatever they needed to do before meeting their fate.

Your poignant observation that not all life's problems have solutions is duly noted and acknowledged. However, like Dean, I am of the opinion that, regardless of whether it was believed to be an "impossible" situation with "no solution," NASA had an obligation to TRY to develop one. We owed those astronauts that much. Faced with the Apollo XIII scenario, 999,999 out of 1,000,000 people would have deemed it impossible. Gene Kranz refused to -- as a result, three astronauts lived to walk the earth again.

(I also respectfully disagree with your statement regarding Apollo XIII; if anything, they had barely enough resources and almost too much time.)

Sadly, the scenario I foretold in this and this thread has come to pass. I only hope that learning the truth about what happened stands as the sole ambition of the investigating panel.

Posted by gojou at February 28, 2003 04:09 AM

I'm not saying that the crew shouldn't have been told--I think that in fact they should have been. In my analogy, the Huntington's patient was the space agency as an organic entity--a bureaucracy that didn't want to diagnose a condition for which it knew, and has known since the system was designed, there was no cure.

I'm simply explaining the possible psychology behind various individuals' actions.

And you're still mistaken about Apollo XIII--they had the resources they needed because of when it occurred--had it happened on the way back, after the LEM was gone, they'd have been dead, and all the derring-do on the ground would not have changed that. Under the circumstances, they came up with a solution very quickly (though there were ongoing crises that had to be managed along the way).

A month after the loss of Columbia, no one has yet identified any plausible way to bring them home safely, even if they'd known the day of launch. Many have waved their hands, but none of the solutions put forth so far are in any way realistic.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 28, 2003 08:14 AM

These statements by O'Keefe are getting a lot of play, today:

Friday, February 28, 2003

WASHINGTON ? NASA's top administrator, Sean O'Keefe, said Friday he "completely rejects the proposition" that nothing could have been done in orbit to help Columbia if engineers had known the space shuttle was in trouble . . . . . .

O'Keefe was responding to a question that cited statements by shuttle program director Ron Dittemore.

"I completely reject the proposition that nothing could have been done," O'Keefe said.

O'Keefe's remarks Friday directly contradicted earlier statements by Dittemore, who said "there's nothing that we can do about tile damage once we get to orbit."

"We can't minimize the heating to the point that it would somehow not require a tile," Dittemore said at a news conference on Feb. 1, the day of the tragedy. "And so once you get to orbit, you're there, and you have your tile insulation, and that's all you have for protection on the way home from the extreme thermal heat heating during re-entry," he said.

But O'Keefe said Friday: "I reject the premise that there was nothing that could have been done on orbit."

The administrator cited the response of Mission Control engineers to the Apollo 13 accident. Engineers devised a way for the three Apollo astronauts to return safely to Earth after an oxygen tank exploded while the spacecraft was on its way to the moon.

O'Keefe, however, admitted that he knew of no formal, written contingency plan that would have covered the case of Columbia, where a space shuttle was in orbit was suspected to have damaged thermal protection tiles.

Posted by Anarchus at February 28, 2003 11:28 AM

Like I said a few weeks ago: Dittemore's being set up to take the fall for this.

Posted by gojou at February 28, 2003 03:07 PM

I must point out that the FAQ you reference, Rand, specifically states that resupply is theoretically possible, just difficult as hell. Not totally impossible.

I agree that it probably wouldn't have worked. :-(

Posted by Dean Esmay at March 1, 2003 04:05 AM

The best shot may have been to accelerate the prep for the next shuttle launch and try to send it up with only two astronauts on board. They would have had a dangerous launch, but it might have been possible.

Posted by Anarchus at March 1, 2003 06:57 AM

Accelerating a Shuttle launch was never a realistic option either, and the number of crew isn't really the issue--you'd be putting at risk a third of the remaining fleet, a risk considerably enhanced by the rush to launch.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 1, 2003 08:39 AM

Actually, I'd be surprised if the shuttle ever flies again. Losing 1 shuttle and crew per 50 launches is an unacceptable failure rate considering the tiny payoff to shuttle flights. Just as bad, the VARIABLE COST of shuttle flights has been estimated between $300 and $500 million, that's also too costly considering the small payoff per launch. Not to mention that under any new launch regime the per launch costs are guaranteed to be higher, due to less unit launches if nothing else.

Secondly, the number of crew IS an issue if instead of trying to resupply the Columbia the relief mission is intended to bring the Columbia astronauts back in the second shuttle. You need the extra space to pack the Columbia seven into.

Posted by Anarchus at March 1, 2003 03:52 PM

That's not the variable cost (if by that you mean marginal cost). It's more like a hundred fifty million at most. It's still much too high, but the real problem with Shuttle costs is the high average cost (six to seven hundred million per flight), due to the low flight rate.

Yes, if it's a rescue mission, the number of crew should be minimized to allow return of the whole crew of the other vehicle, but that was always an utterly unrealistic option.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 1, 2003 09:41 PM

Variable cost would be what some call the "cash cost" of production.

I'd look at the entire shuttle program as a "sunk cost" at this point. But the "cash cost" of producing shuttle flights should probably be looked at over a one-to-two year period, because you require a body of expensive flight engineers, controllers, astronaut training systems etc to support even a single shuttle launch. Looked at that way (including the costs of fuel, set-up on launch pad, etc), over a two year period I bet the "cash cost", variable cost, or marginal cost of each shuttle launch over a two year period (estimating anywhere from two-six launches) would work out to $200 million minimum, a ridiculous figure.

Posted by Anarchus at March 2, 2003 07:45 AM

I think what you mean is marginal cost, i.e., C(n+1)-C(n) or the cost of launching the next flight, given that you're already launching flights.

It's computed by coming up with the annual cost to fly, say, five flights, and subtracting the annual cost to fly four. It's between a hundred and a hundred fifty million per flight (mostly cost of ET replacement and SRB refurbishment, other consumables, and mission-specific training. It doesn't include the fixed costs of maintaining the standing army necessary to support Shuttle operations.

But the notion of saving money by cutting back on flight rate is ridiculous (not to imply that you're advocating this). As long as Shuttle is flying at all, it will cost billions per year. If you're going to fly, the most sensible thing to do is to fly as much as possible, while maintaining safe operations.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 2, 2003 11:07 AM

I agree that nothing could have been done in the actual case of Columbia. But that raises an interesting question: Could the mission have been planned, with the available hardware, so that something *could* be done in this eventuality?

We've got one item of infrastructure up there, the otherwise-nearly-useless International Space Station. Columbia had no way to get to ISS, but the major obstacle was orbital inclination. Columbia is too heavy for ISS construction missions, and probably (I'm guessing here) too heavy for an ISS round-trip with its last payload, but that's assuming that it has to expend OMS fuel to come home.

If Columbia *had been* launched into the ISS's orbital plane at an attainable altitude, wouldn't a one-way "abort to ISS" scenario have been possible?

Posted by Matt McIrvin at March 4, 2003 04:50 PM

Has anyone here heard or Project Moose from the 1960's???? why could NASA not implement on eof these listed options??

An excerpt:

"In the early 1960?s, in the hey-day of the X-20 Dynasoar, it seemed that the US military would naturally keep building military aerospacecraft that would just keep going higher and faster. It was also supposed that the pilot would have to be given the equivalent of an ejection seat - some means of bailing out of the spacecraft in case of catastrophic failure or enemy attack.

So it came to pass that a variety of foaming, inflatable, deployable systems were proposed - among them the famous General Electric MOOSE and the Space General FIRST. These gave the suited pilot the chance to step out into the void from a crippled craft, pull the ripcord, and manually cannonball or glide to the earth?s surface."

This looks at some low cost 'fighting chance' options for orbital vehicle abandondement that was seemingly feasable with 60's tech and certainly should be dooable today.

Posted by Michael Puckett at March 5, 2003 02:34 PM

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