Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Learning the Wrong Lessons

Over the course of this week, America remembers its most visible and most profound space disasters. The sacrifices of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia will not be in vain if we choose to be smart and learn the correct lessons. But the brave astronauts who perished will have done so needlessly if we take the easy way out and embrace the wrong lessons from the tragedies which are seared in our minds.

Apollo 1 was a case where an immature spacecraft was rushed to the launch pad, under poorly-designed test conditions, and after proper quality controls were neglected. While the fire claimed the lives of three prominent astronauts and delayed Project Apollo by approximately 20 months, the result was a dramatically improved spacecraft that brought all of her crews home safely.

The Columbia disaster resulted from a broken safety culture which largely ignored a known defect in the Space Shuttle System: the liberation of ET foam and the risk it posed to the fragile thermal protection system. The reasoning was that because the foam had never caused a problem before, it was not a significant threat to crew safety. Columbia disproved this belief in tragic fashion. Fortunately for the program, NASA management has been judicious in trying to mitigate the shuttle system's inherent design flaw, and even more judicious in assessing damage from the foam strikes that still do occur.

Unfortunately, I think that the correct lessons of Challenger are being buried in the false ones. Challenger demonstrated that the shuttle was a finicky and complex system that could never achieve the fictitious flight rates that were promised at the program's outset.

Moreover, the Challenger disaster was the result of grossly-negligent decisions by middle managers within both NASA and Morton-Thiokol. The flight rules prohibited a launch in the conditions that existed on January 28, 1986. The Thiokol engineers had plenty of evidence to justify the reasoning behind those flight rules. Nevertheless, the launch wasn't stopped by the people who had the power to do the right thing.

When a person's gross negligence results in people getting killed, those people are often sent to jail. When Challenger was lost, nobody went to jail. In fact, NASA was REWARDED for its negligence when Congress funded construction of a replacement orbiter, and when President Reagan and the national leadership supported the continuation of the Space Shuttle Program.

The aftermath of the Challenger disaster is a dramatic example of the difference between the government and the private sector. Government endeavors will continue as long as Congress funds them, regardless of their success or failure. In the private sector, success means generating a profit for the stakeholders. If a private venture fails in that regard, the stakeholders will pull the rug out from under the failing effort. Twenty-two years after Challenger was lost, the American taxpayers still toss roughly $7 billion per year at a manned space program that can't accomplish much more than space station housekeeping and three shuttle flights per year. NASA is still in the business of flying the dangerous and finicky shuttle, and ATK (successor to Morton-Thiokol) is still getting paid hand-over-fist for both the existing SRB's, and for the new solids that will fuel the next generation of big-government pork-launchers.

NASA management's most enduring lesson from Challenger is the flawed mantra of "Crew must be kept separate from cargo." While such flawed logic is enough to trick Congress into funding the development of two very different launchers, it doesn't always hold true. If a launcher can be made safe enough for a human crew, there's no reason why it can't be trusted with carrying a reasonable amount of cargo at the same time.

Additionally, the ESAS architecture could potentially create the same schedule pressures that led to the Challenger launch decision. Because the EDS and lander can only loiter in orbit for 14 days, it creates conditions where NASA management could be tempted to launch the manned Ares I and Orion spacecraft in spite of borderline launch conditions. Managers may be willing to assume more risk if the alternative is throwing away multi-million-dollar hardware that's already in orbit, and missing the launch window for a lunar mission.

As NASA carries out Project Constellation, the agency has no incentives to hold to its schedule, budget, or performance claims as long as Congress funds NASA unconditionally. What the agency really needs is a set of safety and performance benchmarks that must be achieved in order to justify further funding. And if NASA fails to meet those benchmarks, the agency should be thrown under the tires in favor of SpaceX or Scaled Composites (or any other firm with the potential to clear the hurdles of putting humans in orbit.)

While the Challenger disaster fades into becoming a painful memory, its legacy is open to all who choose to seek it. We all have a duty to act in the interests of safety. And when we fail to do so, there should be serious ramifications.

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