Skip to comments.Post-Columbia NASA Hunkers Down - Officials’ view of shortcomings is a bad omen for future clash
Posted on 07/24/2003 11:15:26 AM PDT by anymouse
NASA spaceflight operations officials argued Tuesday that the loss of the space shuttle Columbia was nobodys fault, and that they couldnt have done anything wrong because of their pure intentions. They couldnt think of anything they did wrong, but they also promised to do better in the future.
THESE COMMENTS come as part of NASAs hunkering down in anticipation of being seriously skewered by the report now being written by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The group, often referred to as the Gehman Committee after the retired admiral who chairs it, has already issued its technical explanation of the loss of Columbia and its seven astronauts on Feb. 1. The main thrust of their other report, due for release by the end of August, will be how NASAs culture allowed the disaster to happen.
But when it came time to assess the hazard of foam impact on the special high-temperature leading-edge panels the reinforced carbon-carbon, or RCC they had no test data, no analysis tools, no database of flight experience. So they just guessed. They assumed it would be OK. And NASA officials particularly Linda Ham, who was in charge of that meeting let them get away with it.
Their presentation had stated that the RCC panels were even stronger than tiles because of the relative softness of [foam]. Thus they concluded that RCC damage [is] limited to [loss of] coating based on soft [foam]. The conclusion wasnt based on any analysis or actual testing NASA had never done any foam impacts on RCC. The engineers just guessed that foam, being soft, couldnt even at 500 mph (800 kilometers per hour) hurt the quarter-inch-thick (5-millimeter-thick) RCC panels. Unlike the shuttles tiles, which are supported under their entire area by aluminum skin, the RCC panels were supported only by bolts at their corners.
VETERANS VENT THEIR OUTRAGE
Old-timers from Apollo days have privately expressed outrage at this misjudgment, and at Hams (and all other officials) acquiescence to the guess.
Kraft or Kranz would never have let it go by, one of them told MSNBC.com by e-mail, referring to the legendary Apollo-era flight directors Christopher Kraft and Gene Kranz. They would have demanded to know on what basis this impact was considered safe or demanded a way to determine whether there was any damage or not.
But the new generation of officials at NASA disclaimed any responsibility for requiring such proof.
None of us felt that the analysis was faulty, Ham said Tuesday. We do rely on the systems experts. That is the way that we operate.
The Apollo veterans do not allege that officials should have known in advance that such fatal damage had occurred on this flight. They do point out that the traditional NASA safety culture assume the worst until you have rigorously proven that its safe would have at the very least demanded that officials make efforts to assure themselves that no such damage had actually been done. Instead, they simply and conveniently assumed that such damage was impossible.
Even at Tuesdays roundtable, the officials saw nothing wrong in their decisions. I dont believe anyone is at fault for this, said Ham. Engelauf and Cain agreed: Their decisions were based on the best available data and analysis at the time.
The officials also said they thought it was important that they had good intentions and tried hard. Well, it goes without saying that we were all trying to do the right thing, Ham said. Nobody wanted to do any harm to anyone. Obviously, nobody wants to hurt the crew.
Engelauf went further, bristling at an imagined insult. Its unconscionable to me that people can attribute to the members of the MMT or the flight control team or the rest of the folks during these missions anything other than the best of intentions, he said. These are people of good conscience doing everything in their power to get the right answers. This is what we do for a living.
We lost the crew and we lost the vehicle, he conceded, ... but it is not because of lack of good intent or lack of effort on anybodys part. ... Its really difficult to me to attribute blame to any individual personalities or people. We can find mistakes in analyses and we can find places where we werent good enough. But its not because of malice or ill intent.
KNOWING WHATS BROKEN
None of the outside experts who talked with MSNBC.com suggested that these officials had anything but the best intentions. But they suspect that perhaps the officials confused good intentions with good judgment.
At the point that the officials made these mistakes, it may well have been too late to save the crew. But these officials all agreed that had they known about the severity of the damage (while excusing themselves of their responsibility to make a reliable determination of that severity), they would literally have moved heaven and earth to develop a rescue or makeshift repair plan.
This obsession with after-the-fact justification of the decisions or the lack of required decisions that led to the loss of the crew is a bad omen for the imminent clash with the Gehman Committees diagnosis of what is wrong inside NASAs culture and what must be fixed. Fixing something requires knowledge that it is broken, whether its a spaceship wing, or a space culture. NASAs shortsightedness in not recognizing how badly broken Columbia was gave them no chance to fix it, and seven people died. Officials at NASA seem equally unable to see whats broken about their own culture. Until they recognize it, its equally unlikely theyll be able to fix that flaw, either.
James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer.
(Excerpt) Read more at msnbc.com ...
Way to go, Oberg. We know karma is unaffected by intention. The action counts, nothing else matters.
Results matter, NASA. You didn't want to kill the astronauts?
Page One news. NOT.
Both these guys are class acts.
There was a time when this sort of thing ended careers. What you feel is moot, what you know and what happens counts.
Now, all we care about is subjectives like sincerity and intentions.
No wonder NASA thinks getting off the ground qualifies as an eighth wonder of the world. They are midgets standing on the shoulders of giants imagining themselves to be giants. Without the foundation and framework laid down by their predecessors, they would have as much chance of getting to space as an eighth grade B-team has of winning the superbowl.
"Aviation in and of itself, is not inherently dangerous. But, to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect."
This philosophy would never get anyone close to the moon. It would not even get anyone safely airborne above their belly button.
This is indicative of a design philosophy that came into vogue during the '80s IMHO, in which development time and costs were cut via cutting safety and system testing, effectively letting the customer be the beta tester. This philosophy has a proven track record for companies such as Microsoft, but then no one proposed using DOS or Windows to control anything life-critical on the order of shuttle flights or nuclear reactors.
It definitely represents IMHO a change in design philosophy, and a change for the worse.
TLBSHOW can be found in the Valley of the Damned/Banned at Liberty Post
Bill Readdy promulgated a letter last week to shore up the troops. It essentially said, "Don't be defensive. Do your job and lets get on with the process." The whole tone of the letter was defensive. Anybody see anything wrong with this picture?
Posted by dasboot to dtel
On News/Activism 02/06/2003 8:09 AM EST #24 of 54
They knew that there were problems with impact damage from foam and/or ice tearing off. They knew that there was some amount of damage that could be tolerated.
They knew that there was an amount of damage that , dependent upon location and depth, would possibly doom the re-entry.
They knew that in order to initiate abort (acknowledged to be risky , but safer that re-entry with compromised heat-shielding), the damage would have to be assessed, real-time, pre-orbit.
And finally, I understand they knew that significant damage to the tiles would be indicated by white areas where the hard surface had been shed.
The simple and obvious solution is to place monitoring cameras on the tank-struts, facing the underside of the vehicle, hard-wired to the cockpit, and visible to the ommander and pilot, who can then make the decision to continue to orbit or abort, based upon something better than guess-work and wishful thinking. The determination then rests where it should: with the commander and pilot.
They don't know for certain what brought the thing down; and because of this goof, we may never know.
Can anyone tell me that the solution was beyond the reasonable consideration or discovery of the NASA Brain Trust?
Can anyone tell me that cameras were impossible? I've seen film of launches, taken by just such "fisheye" cameras, that were mounted on the exterior of Saturn rockets, right in the slipstream.
Can anyone tell me that this kind of mistake would have been given a pass by the early NASA pilots?
Bad. Very bad.
With a little foresight, this thing might have been avoided, the crew and vehilce saved, if indeed the tiles were the cause. At least the commander and pilot would have been given a fair shot at recovering themselves.
I don't think it matters a whit what the cause was, with regard to the poor quality of mission ops.
Sprites, elfs, and metiorites are acts of God; the fact that they couldn't assess the space-worthiness of the vehicle--in light of what was known before-hand--is, I think, inexcusable.
One last thing: a few are discounting the force with which 'exfoliated' foam or ice could have on the tiles because of the relative velocity and short distance to the wing. But I want you to think about the last time you were doing 65 on the highway, and a sheet of ice lifted from the hood of your car and smacked the windshield. Very short distance; same relative velocity; big bang, and sometimes a cracked windshield.
Liberty Post?? Pretender to FR?
Sounds like the PC pablem that current generations are being spoon fed in our public school systems. As demonstrated by this trajedy, good intentions will get you killed in space flight.
BTW , you did notice the "Debris" post was from February? A few folks on that and other threads, were poo-pooing about the foam, and defending the McEngineers in the current program. I feel a little vindicated. Pardon the 'I told you so."
Back in a while to respond.
Say it ain't so XBob, but, This is (unfortunately) all too true. Fortunately, I am now retired disabled (but not badly :-), and don't have to face that idiocy every day. Nobody, today even has the slightest exposure to drafting instruments, and most have never set pencil to paper (or vellum). I do believe that the young Engineering types feel that ideas come right out of a computer, because I have never met one of the "new generation" who has the slightest idea of "brainstorming", or any other useful design tools.
This being said, HAM seems to describe his act precisely, and the "faulty analysis" seems to be the norm, rather than the exception, these days. Although not mentioned in the article, remember the "semi-destructive testing" which was done on an RCC seal, then simply reinstalled as flight hardware, blindly forgetting that people's lives depend on this stuff. Working with "man-rated" components used to be serious and heady stuff indeed, as one knew that one was holding lives in your hands, and did the requisite amount of over-design to darn well make sure the component worked, every time, but all that seems to have gone by the wayside today.
Keep the Faith For Freedom
Her comments were definitely nuts.
Anyone with a conscience would have resigned in disgrace instead of denying the obvious. She blew it!
Instead she claims no one was at fault and they did the best they could. (I see no evidence of that.)
They assumed that since the foam had not brought the shuttle down before, it would survive and that there was nothing that could have been done anyway so they did not even try.
What a bunch of crap.
They blew the call and should take the fall.
SHE said...Ok, so I'm from a "previous generation" of engineers...(removing foot from mouth). Conclusion faulty based on preconcieved datapoints.
OK, the above being said, I wouldn't climb into the left seat of anything that SHE had anything remotely associated with, I don't care if it was a Piper Cub (rear seat in this case LOL) that she ordered recovered with new Ceconite fabric. And that's for me, a big deal, because at this point, I would give about anything to get my medical back, and be able to climb into the left (actually, any seat, as long as there were controls there) seat of ANYTHING capable of flight ;-)
I am, as I always have been, ready to accept risk, such as occurs with flight in any high performance aircraft, as is any motivated pilot, as long as the risks are understood, and I have a chance to evaluate my options prior to any given flight. NASA, however, seems to be holding cards that those who will command/pilot the shuttle can't see, and are making decisions based on ?????. Since the Shuttle Commander is limited in what inspections they can make prior to launch, simply by the vehicle configuration and position, and the value of such inspections limited because some faults one just can't see, they have to go on reports of others, who allegedly perform good inspections and tests. Whooops, allegedy simply isn't good enough.
If one buys into the failure mode, then one buys into the huge negligence of putting questionable items back into flight hardware. If I bent a seal almost a thousand times, I wouldn't reinstall it on a Cessna 150, let alone the Shuttle. If I saw video/film of multiple ET foam failures, I would have shut down there and then, the first time it happened, and find out WHY.
Sorry, people, but standard Aerospace Practice and Inspection/Qualification requires requalification of the entire system if a component of mission critical status is changed in any way, shape, or form, from the original, accepted design. The foam was changed, big time, thus, demanding requalification of the whole system. These yahoos just sat there, watched multiple launches where the darn foam came off the tank and impacted the shuttle wing. Since I am not "in the loop" as to the postflight inspections of these previous "foam impact" flights, I can't speculate on what damage was found. We, on another thread, have discussed the almost burnthrough of the elevon actuator shaft. Man, If that had been my area, and I the engineer responsible, would have sent up red flares/flags, and hectored anyone I could, and If I had to, would have issued a grounding order myself.
Ok, NASA management would probably have fired me on the spot, but at least I would have done what was both professionally and morally responsible, and what would have been expected of any designer in any other aerospace project. One just doesn't deliberately put aircrew at risk of a known failure mode, without fixing the defect which would cause said failure mode. I was always taught from day one, that I should always put myself in the position of saying "YES, I would personally fly that, I have no reservations", and be willing to back that statement up, if necessary, by strapping on whatever flight hardware is in question. A very powerful guarantee, indeed.
Maybe if some of the staff (HAM) were handed LES and told to "get aboard NOW" (boot up posterior optional) , their reactions (how much blood drained from their faces, magnitude of shaking, and percent "pucker factor") would be some extremely good datapoints in regards safety of flight issues. If nothing else, it would be worth a few feet of videotape, showing the panic reaction setting in.
One then scrubs the flight, and looks for the problem they are covering up. Simple, forceful, and instantly doable.
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I had thought the "they" and "them" meant NASA officials, then the text says that "...NASA officials...let them (who them?) get away with it."
MSNBC wrote this mess?!!
You sound like a pilot. If so, you understand that most "accidents" are the result of a number of cumulative factors, none of which - by themselves - would have caused it.
We know that a chunk of foam (possibly ice) hit somewhere near the underside of the leading edge.
This sort of thing has happened many times previously, and has not been a problem. This time it was. So I say there has to be another factor involved.
Was this chunk of foam bigger? Maybe
Did it have ice in it? Maybe
Did it hit in just the right place and at the right angle? Probably
But before I sign off on the "they just ran out of luck" scenario, I would like to investigate other possible contributing factors. Hopefully, the CAIB is doing this, but I am beginning to have my doubts.
I have been saying for a while now that the mod work which was performed on Columbia's leading edge support system in 1999 needs to be looked at. Why was it done? Was it done properly? We just don't know, and neither the CAIB or the press seem to be interested.
The nitrogen-gun tests that NASA performed on the leading edge did not test the support system at all. You could see in the pictures that the RCC section was externally supported. Why did NASA not do a realistic test? Why did they assume that the L.E.S.S could not have been a problem? I understand that the RCC sections are attached to the orbiter by only four bolts - what if the impact did not breach the RCC but broke the attachment? What if a bolt was missing? We just don't know. The closeout photos taken at Palmdale have never been released, or maybe they just don't exist. Who knows...
We know that the same people who did the mod work on Columbia did sub-standard work on Atlantis, causing a minor burn through in the same area as the larger problem on Columbia. This should set off alarm bells, but so far it hasn't.
Oh well. We can only hope the truth comes out - for the sake of the astronauts and the space workers of America.