Chair Force Engineer

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth

The traumatic loss of Challenger, twenty years ago today, is just as tragic today because we have largely ignored the accident's lessons. Three years ago from this Wednesday, Columbia was lost in a very different accident, but one which can be traced to similar management practices.

History has not done a good job of capturing the atmosphere that existed at the time of the Challenger disaster. For NASA, the year 1985 had been a productive one (by today's standards,) but the nine shuttle missions from that year fell far short of the predictions for 50 missions per year when the shuttle program was first authorized.

For 1986, NASA was attempting a launch schedule with even more flights, including the first launch from Vandenberg into polar orbit, two planetary probes (Galilleo & Magellan,) the Centaur liquid-fueled upper stage (which was supposed to launch the afforementioned probes,) and the Hubble Space Telescope. Challenger's final flight was a mission which had been originally manifested for fiscal year 1985 but had faced repeated delays. If NASA couldn't launch a "routine" satellite-deployment mission with a teacher on board, how could it launch the more risky missions later in the year? Obviously, the pressure was mounting to proceed with the launch, despite concerns that the shuttle was being operated in dangerous temperature conditions. The crew of the previous mission, STS-61C, had seen the mistakes people made while under schedule pressure; their mission was almost launched in spite of a partially-vented external tank.

Besides the oft-cited management problems, there were a tremendous number of technical mistakes that doomed the basic shuttle design.
--The selection of parallel staging (two SRB's burning at the same time, flanking the external tank) instead of serial staging.
--The selection of Thiokol's four-segment SRB's over Aerojet's single-segment SRB's.
--The selection of solid rocket boosters over liquid rocket boosters, despite the warnings of Wernher von Braun.
--The lateral mounting of the orbiter, which would preclude any chance of escape even if an escape system were available.

The entire shuttle design was driven by an ill-conceived attempt to marry the requirements of NASA (moderate sized payloads to easterly orbits) with those of the Air Force (large payloads to polar orbit, with sufficient cross range to return to base.) Many within the Air Force never wanted the shuttle, because manned spacecraft drew unnecessary attention to classified missions (and the Air Force baseline mission was cancelled after Challenger anyway.) To boot, NASA was trying to attempt something that had never been attempted before: the development, test and operation of a manned, winged, reusable spacecraft. Had NASA and the Air Force proceeded with a smaller experimental vehicle (like the X-20 DynaSoar,) the limitations on the shuttle's flight rate and other problems could have been revealed before the shuttle program was conceived.

I was too young to understand Challenger or even remember it when the accident took place. But the disaster was so great that the idea of totally ending manned spaceflight gained traction in mainsteam America. Overseas, the rest of the world no longer was awed by America's technological might or ingenuity.

On the evening of the disaster, President Reagan postponed his State of the Union address and delivered a speech, penned by Peggy Noonan, eulogizing Challenger's lost crew. Reagan (and Noonan) closed the speech by citing lines from High Flight, by John Gillespie Magee. The poem has become a staple of the Air Force ROTC education (which, I assume, took place as a result of the speech.)

The last three lines of the poem sum up so succinctly the feelings and motivations of the fallen astronauts, and indeed all the fallen aviators.

And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

For those on the ground, we should best heed the last line of President Bush's address to the nation when Columbia was lost: ...but we can pray that all are safely home. Pray we will, but we must also use our God-given abilities to bring the astronauts who rely on us safely home.