Guardian Finger Pointing, Already
Just read this article
in the Guardian, where one fellow, a 36 year NASA veteran, is already trying to point the finger at the NASA Administration. I'm just a enthusiastic amateur, but some of these charges don't ring true. Maybe it's a dead-on indictment. The concerns about NASA safety are fair, but this one comment really jumped out at me and smacks, I think, of grandstanding:
'But when I tried to raise my concerns with NASA's new administrator, I received two reprimands for not going through the proper channels, which discouraged other people from coming forward with their concerns. When it came to an argument between a middle-ranking engineer and the astronauts and administration, guess who won.
Stop. Let's play that back. The fight between the middle-ranking engineer on the one hand, and the astronauts and the administration on the other? I don't have to spend a lot of time lecturing on game theory to convince the thoughtful reader that the astronauts have the most to lose when it comes to shuttle safety. Yes, NASA Administration has promises to keep, so their incentives (not their motives!) might, I suppose, line up with some whitewashing (I reject any suggestion that NASA Administration has done anything but work for crew safety). But astronauts have an entirely different set of values that line up neatly with the interests of middle-engineering management - i.e., crew survivability - and if this guy is willing to say that astronauts got in the way of astronaut safety
, without concrete proof, I favor bastinado.
'One of my biggest complaints has been that we should have been looking for ways to develop crew escape modules, which NASA has constantly rejected.'
grandstanding. An ejectable crew cabin (presumably not unlike that aboard the F-111 Aardvark
where the whole unit pops out, not individual seats (N.B.
: Check out this whole page, and you'll be begin to see how complex something like this can be) was considered on many occasions
for use on the space shuttle. It was constantly rejected because -- get this -- it was a bad idea.
First, such a cabin would be very heavy, forcing a dramatic decrease in shuttle performance. Second, you need to build in a lot of pyrotechnics into the cabin eject to make it work (adding more failure modes). Third, a separable (rather than integral) cabin eject adds more moving parts (railing, parachutes, flotation devices (adding even more failure modes)). Fourth, its not clear that this cabin eject would have help in this crash --- an ejectable crew cabin, which is pretty easy in an F-111 because the speeds are Mach 1.8ish at maximum doesn't need a hell of a lot of inflight performance. Making something work at Mach 18 - as opposed to the Mach 2 or so of Challenger
-- when the shuttle was still in reentry mode (when the Columbia
was lost today) would mean the cabin eject would itself have to be reentry worthy (adding yet still weight and more failure modes).
In future projects, should we consider a cabin eject? Absolutely! Design that up front and it might be quite workable. But to suggest it can be grafted right onto the existing shuttle fleet demonstrates a lack of understanding of his own subject matter. What bugs me even more about this statement is that, now that we've had a second failure mode for the space shuttle demonstrated all too graphically, this fellow wants to claim he'd forseen the fix that would have (perhaps) saved them for this
accident while glossing over the dozens of failure modes that his fix wouldn't have helped (and probably would have made more likely).
Everyone wants to minimize the risk but, sadly, even human safety must fit within budgetary constraints. And, more importantly, there are lots of other places money gets spent on shuttle safety. Take, just as one for instance, Transatlantic Abort Landing (TAL) Sites
. If the shuttle had had to abort during launch (an issue considered far more likely until today... and, in fact... still today), the space shuttle has the option of cutting short of orbit and landing near Madrid
or in Senegal
, using runways built and maintained at great expense. Without those runways (almost used on Eileen Collins' first flight as commander), a NASA crew would have, essentially, no options except a nice, controlled crash into the sea. Would an ejectable crew compartment help there? Possibly, but at the expense of other shuttle safety systems.
Sadly, there isn't a giant pile of cash to pay for everything and we don't have a Way Back Machine to solve the problems we now know will fail. And this blowhard suggesting that his fix was the one thing NASA needed is terribly premature.
We need to go over NASA management with a fine-tooth comb and make sure this was just an engineering problem, not a management one. There are some real issues brought up in this article (although they are nothing new
to anyone who follows the space program with more than passing interest). But before our One Loan Desperate Engineer claims he had The Solution, he knows enough that safety decisions are part of engineering compromise and are determined after careful study by lots of smart people, not the One Loan Desperate Engineer trying to stop things at the last moment.
It's sad, but true, that as long as we're going to operate the space shuttle around Earth, and not the Ralph Nader-approved Planet Nerf
, we are going to lose astronauts. Anyone who says there was The Solution, both perfect and smackingly obvious, just waiting to be enacted is deluding themselves.