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« Ascendant Dragon | Main | The Latest Propaganda From Thiokol »

They're Going To Kill More Astronauts!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. He didn't know, but asked some of his staff, and they told him they were.
  3. He didn't know, but asked and was told they weren't, but felt politically compelled to do so anyway.
  4. 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.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 28, 2005 06:00 AM
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Excerpt: Transterrestrial Musings points us to a media roundup on the recent NASA safety panel findings. LOOK! Space travel is dangerous. We little humans have developed to live on this little blue green marble, third planet from the sun. For us...
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Comments

The dangerous nature of the endeavor and the inevitably that death will result in this inherently risky business should be used as a selling tool. Our military, NASCAR, Extreme sports (Base Jumping etc.) all use their danger as a selling point not a thing to be hidden away and forgotten until the next tragedy. The Romans gloried in their daring do. As have many great cultures. I see it as beneficial to a society to learn the lesson that some deeds require sacrifice and sometime the ultimate sacrifice. Letís stop shirking from what it is and societally immerse ourselves in itís danger.

Posted by JJS at June 28, 2005 10:02 AM

IIRC, and if you go back to the only referenice out to date, Sletzin & Cowings' '"New Moon Rising" covers this on pg 79-81 of the HB edition.

In realty, right *then*, right *there*, there was no other acceptable responce that could be made. They (NASA) *had* to accept the CAIB Report and make the commitment to comply with it. Everything that had come out from Febuary 1st, 2003 to then left no other choice.

The handling of it ... now that is where anyone can next-day-quaterback.

Posted by Michael Antoniewicz II at June 28, 2005 11:17 AM

The Cowing/Sietzen book is not a good source, as they were both given special access to O'Keefe in order to write a court history of his tenure--so O'Keefe comes out looking wonderful and lots of other people look bad. It makes no pretense of objectivity. I suggest one of the other books on the accident, such as Comm Check, where the authors were not trying to get free rides on NASA jets.

There are several problems with Mr. Simberg's assumptions, both regarding the CAIB and O'Keefe's response to it.

First, the CAIB issued recommendations and had no way of knowing if they were achievable or not achievable. They did not have the full resources of NASA applied over several years to make those determinations. There was no way for them--or O'Keefe--to know when they released their report what was "impractical" and what was possible.

The fact that it took several years of study by NASA (and contractor) engineers to determine that some things simply could not be done proves that nobody could know a priori if these things could be done--UNTIL somebody investigated them. The CAIB simply set a very high bar and essentially said "see if you can reach it, and if you cannot, explain why it is not possible, or important to reach it."

Similarly, O'Keefe did the right thing in that instance, because he had little other recourse. He headed an agency that had just taken a critical beating and if he looked like he was fighting, then that would have confirmed his critics' charges. Politically, it was a smart move for him to make.

But O'Keefe also took this position because it was a smart move from an engineering standpoint. He did not know if these things were impossible in August 2003. His "experts" did not know if these things were impossible in August of 2003 (and his experts were all suspect at the time because of the decisions that they made before the accident, when they assumed that lots of things were "not possible" that we later learned was not the case).

So the best thing O'Keefe could do was tell them to go out and try, rather than resist and fight. After all, some of the things that people thought were not possible in August 2003 have now been demonstrated to be possible after much work. Your criticism implies that O'Keefe had to be omniscient and know which CAIB recommendations to accept and which to ignore as soon as he received the report. There is not an engineer on the planet who knew those things.

Posted by William Berger at June 28, 2005 03:08 PM

First, the CAIB issued recommendations and had no way of knowing if they were achievable or not achievable. They did not have the full resources of NASA applied over several years to make those determinations. There was no way for them--or O'Keefe--to know when they released their report what was "impractical" and what was possible.

I sure knew they weren't practical.

So the best thing O'Keefe could do was tell them to go out and try, rather than resist and fight.

Well, apparently he thought he could do better, because he pledged not to fly until he'd done them all, despite the fact that he couldn't know whether or not they were doable.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 28, 2005 03:24 PM

Berger: The Cowing/Sietzen book is not a good source, as they were both given special access to O'Keefe in order to write a court history of his tenure--

Funny thing - I was *there* and this is not what happened. As far as rides on NASA jets go - Frank did not get one - and I flew 6 months *before* the book even came out. As for your imagined quid pro quo - I guess the same can be said for reporters from USA Today, NY Times etc. etc. all of whom have flown on the jet with O'Keefe - more than once - and I certainly don't recall them as ever being in NASA's corner. Quite the contrary.

Posted by Keith Cowing at June 28, 2005 04:03 PM

Media headlining of this has varied. Some focused on the "failure" angle, others on the "safe enough to fly" angle. None that I saw mentioned that NASA's has already acknowledged that tile repair is beyond their capability. The Board's recommendations are, I'm sure, seen by the public as a pass-fail measure for NASA, so if they fly with any of the recommendations unmet, NASA stands to be painted as grossly irrepsonsible.

Posted by billg at June 28, 2005 04:38 PM

billg,

Never forget that the mass media has degraded to tabloid status -- each trying to outdo the others with the most sensational (ratings-grabbing) stories or spins to stories. The fact that the vast majority of stories in the MSM are doom&gloom reports is perfectly predictable when much of the readership goes to hockey games to watch the fights or goes to auto racing to see the wrecks. Expect the doom/gloom drumbeat to increase as the RTF launch comes closer. After all, "Everything's fine" doesn't sell as many newspapers.

- Eric.

Posted by Eric S. at June 28, 2005 05:25 PM

We'll see what happens at the FRR tomorrow and Thursday...

Posted by James at June 28, 2005 11:05 PM

We're not killing enough astronauts.

No, seriously. If we were doing anything but piddling little stunts in space, there would be many more deaths there -- even if the overall death rate for astronauts were lower.

I've proposed it before, but I'll repeat it here. Let's have a National Astronaut Cemetary. Make it Really Big. The message is we expect to need all that space.

Posted by Paul Dietz at June 29, 2005 07:40 AM


> If we were doing anything but piddling little stunts in space, there would
> be many more deaths there -- even if the overall death rate for
> astronauts were lower.

Astronauts have died in airplane crashes, car crashes, at least one motorcycle crash. If you checked the figures, I suspect you'd find those crashes account for more astronaut deaths than space does, because astronauts do those things quite often, while they very rarely fly in space.

Posted by Edward Wright at June 29, 2005 12:54 PM

>> 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.

>>The dangerous nature of the endeavor and the inevitably that death will result in this inherently risky business...

It's really getting scary how casually folks rattle off the "well space flight is intrinsically dangerous" line. Hell armed combat and airliners are intrinsically dangerous - but we don't tolerate anything like these loss rates in eiather field for normal ops. Its bad when shuttle astrounauts would be safer with the Marines taking Faluga, then flying cargo to the ISS, and folks shrugg off their deaths in INSANELY badly made craft with a "what are you going to do" comment.

Posted by Kelly Starks at June 29, 2005 12:58 PM


> It's really getting scary how casually folks rattle off the "well space
> flight is intrinsically dangerous" line. Hell armed combat and airliners
> are intrinsically dangerous - but we don't tolerate anything like these
> loss rates in eiather field for normal ops.

Go and look at the accident statistics. The accident rate for the first 400 space travellers is almost exactly the same as it was for the first 400 air travellers.

You *have* to do something badly before you learn to do it well.

> Its bad when shuttle astrounauts would be safer with the Marines taking
> Faluga, then flying cargo to the ISS, and folks shrugg off their deaths
> in INSANELY badly made craft with a "what are you going to do" comment.

Who said that?

Posted by Edward Wright at June 29, 2005 04:59 PM

I'll make a few observations about O'Keefe. He's a good man who was handed a terrible job in late 2001. I gather one of the reasons the Bush administration didn't replace Goldin until late in 2001 was because people didn't want the job. Goldin made a terrible mess. Commitment to repairing the agency didn't seem to be present.

There is lots to criticize in O'Keefe's time in office. But I will say two things in his favor. I think he made a decent response to Columbia. It was significantly flawed, but understandably so. How would you like to be essentially drafted into a job you'd had little training in?

Secondly, perhaps because he was seen as an honest, decent man, it made it possible for the Bush administration to come around to providing more support for fixing NASA and moving toward VSE.

Griffin is a huge improvement over O'Keefe in many ways. But O'Keefe began a process of curing NASA of ills that had simply been allowed to fester and worsen over years, if not decades. Griffin looks like a man who's going to speed up and strengthen the cures as well as initiating new ones.

Posted by Chuck Divine at June 30, 2005 10:07 AM

"The dangerous nature of the endeavor and the inevitably that death will result in this inherently risky business should be used as a selling tool."

I think that's a good idea, JJS. In fact, that seems to be exactly how space exploration was viewed back in the early days. Astronauts were like test pilots, except more so - it was glamourous because it was perilous.

Today's astronauts are just as brave but for some reason we feel the need to wrap them in administrative swaddling clothes and deny them the glory that should accompany the risks. The irony is that people now are given more respect for playing dangerous but pointless sports than for doing a dangerous job that actually accomplishes something important.

Posted by Bryan C at June 30, 2005 10:13 AM

The real problem is the shuttle is obsolete, a fact tacitly admitted 15 years ago when NASA decided not to build any more. Why do they keep flying it? The infrastructure and associated payroll would vanish, a politically unallowable result. NASA needs a Burt Rutan type development program to get a practical space payload delivery system, tailored to meet $/lb to orbit requirements. That will be the only way they can meet the economics promised (but never achieved) by the shuttle fleet.

Posted by Bernie M at June 30, 2005 10:25 AM

No, the problem is not that 'the shuttle is obsolete'. 'Obsolete' implies the shuttle was once a success, but no longer is.

The phrase you are looking for is 'a failure'.

Posted by Paul Dietz at June 30, 2005 11:42 AM

the space shuttle has been a fantastic success. it is an increadibly capable system poven by the fact that no other space transportation can even come close to offering the payload capability and flexibility and yes even reliability of the sts. when the doomsayer started in on the system way back in the 70s they said that there would be an accident every 25 flights they obviously were very wrong.
the world has looked up to us because the shuttle and used its capability as a goal for their own. we should be very proud of its accomplishment.
15 years ago i read an article about the shuttle were the author stated that what we all apparently want is a foam covered world noone ever gets hurt. that isnt what the 1st shuttle crew to fly wanted. that isnt what the 1st crew after challanger wanted and that really isnt what any shuttle crew has wanted. i would fly on the shuttle in a heartbeat.

Posted by tim at June 30, 2005 01:04 PM

[ No, the problem is not that 'the shuttle is obsolete'. 'Obsolete' implies the shuttle was once a success, but no longer is.

The phrase you are looking for is 'a failure'.]

I think the Shuttle is superannuated and overdue for replacement. However, I can't understand why people such as Paul Dietz insist on the "failure" canard.

If anyone wants to discuss expensive space failures, boondoggles, and white elephants, let's talk about the International Space Station.

Unless NASA under Dr. Griffin cuts lose from the ISS, NASA will remain lost in space.

Posted by David Davenport at June 30, 2005 03:54 PM


> the world has looked up to us because the shuttle and used its
> capability as a goal for their own

Only one other nation made it a goal to copy the Shuttle. They went bankrupt as a result, and their Shuttle is now part of the going out of business sale. :-)

Posted by at June 30, 2005 05:04 PM

David: describing the shuttle as a 'failure' is not a canard; it is completely accurate.

An engineering project is a failure if it doesn't achieve the goals that were used to justify it. The stated goal of the shuttle program was to provide routine, economical access to space. It utterly failed to do this. It failed to reach the promised number of launches per year. It MASSIVELY failed to reach the promised cost/mass to LEO.

I don't see how the shuttle can be considered anything other than a failure. Consider as additional evidence the fact that the shuttle is not being replaced with anything similar, but rather by the systems of the kind the shuttle was meant to replace (capsules and expendable launchers).

Posted by Paul Dietz at June 30, 2005 07:23 PM

[ An engineering project is a failure if it doesn't achieve the goals that were used to justify it ]

Well, the American K-12 public school system is an engineering project -- a social engineering project. Would you agree that the American public school system is a failure because it is not meeting its advertised goals?

Paul, I am trying to figure out your real agenda in stamping the "failure" label on the Shuttle.

Are you a Luddite? Do you have some alternative space launch project to sell? What is your agenda? Please explain.

Actually, if a dozen or so of Shuttles had been launched at the rate of fifty (50, nearly one a week ) launches per year, paid for dollars with the purchasing power of 1973 dollars, and if the Shuttle system had evolved and morphed into a fully reusable system, as its designers had hoped, the cost per pound to low Earth orbit, accounted in dollars with the purchasing power of 1973 dollars, might have been a success.

I refer to the year 1973 because I understand that the present Shuttle's design was set in August, 1973.

[ Consider as additional evidence the fact that the shuttle is not being replaced with anything similar, but rather by the systems of the kind the shuttle was meant to replace (capsules and expendable launchers).

Capsules and expendable launchers are a step back into the past. I'm against 'em. Capsules and expendable boosters in the 21st century = monkeys in a bucket, a failure of American nerve.

Real men and women fly aerospace planes back to Earth, under the pilot's control, and land on runways.

Posted by David Davenport at June 30, 2005 08:33 PM

Well, the American K-12 public school system

... is irrelevant to the point being discussed.

Paul, I am trying to figure out your real agenda in stamping the "failure" label on the Shuttle.

How could that possibly matter, unless you are intending to engage in ad hominem arguments? The success or failure of the shuttle is not a matter that is dependent on my motivations.

Are you a Luddite?

And there it is. Ah well.

Actually, my agenda is one of disdain for slipshod thinking and wishful self-delusional bullshit, something that space advocates have produced far too much of over the last few decades.

Actually, if a dozen or so of Shuttles had been launched at the rate of fifty [...]

If they had built that many orbiters the business case they made wouldn't have closed, due to the higher initial investment. And, as it was, they were creating make-work missions to try to pad out the launch schedule.


Real men and women fly aerospace planes back to Earth, under the pilot's control, and land on runways.

That's an argument that's not even wrong. It's just meaningless noise.

Posted by Paul Dietz at June 30, 2005 09:09 PM

Paul Dietz wrote:

Actually, my agenda is one of disdain for slipshod thinking and wishful self-delusional bullshit, something that space advocates have produced far too much of over the last few decades.

Ah, the tough, honest realist.

Bullshit.

Paul, I remember you from years ago. You engage in systematic attacks apparently on everyone who doesn't buy your line. I can't ever remember you stepping up to support something.

Describing the shuttle as a failure by comparing it to the claims made originally isn't entirely honest. Why? Because those initial claims were dishonest political rhetoric at the time. The real expectations of the shuttle were considerably less.

If you want to see real slipshod thinking and self delusion, go take a look at the mess known as "homeland security." Space advocates show both good and bad thinking. Large numbers of us have made mistakes. We've also worked at solving the problems we see. It's easy to stand back and condemn "slipshod thinking and self delusion."

I can be pretty hard on slipshod thinking myself. But, I think, I make those kinds of cliams very rigorously with lots of supporting data. I don't see you doing that. What I see you doing is just attacking others.

Posted by Chuck Divine at July 1, 2005 05:34 AM

Paul, I remember you from years ago. You engage in systematic attacks apparently on everyone who doesn't buy your line. I can't ever remember you stepping up to support something.

Well cry me a river, Chuck. I didn't know you had some god-given right to not be disagreed with.

I attack positions because I think they're wrong. And, guess what -- there's a lot of that around. If you didn't notice, the space program is extremely screwed up, and has been for decades. Don't blame me for pointing that out, or for you being made uncomfortable by that fact.

I am proud I was ahead of the curve on disillusionment with NASA and the myths on which it was and is based. Those myths thrive on the kind of 'I don't want to hear negative thinking' nonsense you're still engaging in.

Grow up, practice more critical thinking, and maybe you'll realize my attitude is ultimately a lot more positive than your own.

Describing the shuttle as a failure by comparing it to the claims made originally isn't entirely honest. Why? Because those initial claims were dishonest political rhetoric at the time. The real expectations of the shuttle were considerably less.

Ah, so what you're saying is that the Shuttle, rather than being a failure, was an outright fraud.

Let's consider the consequences of this. If space policy has been based on fraud, is there any expectation that the new policy is not also similarly fraudulent? That all the earnest claims of how important VSE is going to be are known lies?

Seems to me that in this environment, supporters of space spending must be assigned considerably less credibility than their critics.

If you want to see real slipshod thinking and self delusion, go take a look at the mess known as "homeland security."

Which, of course, has nothing to do with the space program, except in that it provides another example of how government can screw up. I hope you are not saying that NASA should be cut some slack because another part of the government is also a fiasco.

But, I think, I make those kinds of cliams very rigorously with lots of supporting data.

Not that I can see. What you've done is moved the goalposts, redefining 'success'. It's a common ploy in failed projects to do that.

Posted by Paul Dietz at July 2, 2005 09:39 AM

Um, folks, just for the record, the space shuttle has made a profit for the United States. Add up all the taxes for telecomms that utilize satellite technology, you'll find that that MORE THAN COVERS the cost of the ENTIRE space program.

Do I need to mention the taxes paid by the plastics industry for plastics developed as a result of Apollo?

What about computer chips?

Financially, the shuttle was a GRAND success. Politically, Nixon and Carter killed the shuttle, Nixon because he had an inherited bad war to deal with, Carter because he didn't understand space exploration. Reagan and Bush Sr. got things back on track, but used the program as a hammer on the Soviets, Clinton let NASA languish, now we're finally back in the game.

The Space Shuttle is being replaced, by the Space Elevator and the CEV. These projects finally got their funding under Bush Jr. We've funded a return to the Moon fully, and the ISS will be finished and rebuilt as a workable platform.

The Shuttle is what we have here and now. It's not NASA's fault, it's the politicians fault for making NASA scrape for crumbs.

The entire space program is a success, but it's a conservative success, but don't let anyone delude you that the space program or any of it's parts is a failure, it's one of the few programs that actually have met and exceeded the ROI.

--Jason

Posted by Jason Coleman at July 2, 2005 10:36 AM

Add up all the taxes for telecomms that utilize satellite technology, you'll find that that MORE THAN COVERS the cost of the ENTIRE space program.

Do I need to mention the taxes paid by the plastics industry for plastics developed as a result of Apollo?

What about computer chips?

The Shuttle had nothing to do with any of those things.

Some myths never die.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 2, 2005 01:01 PM


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