“And many other members of Mission Control have gone on to other things, but some are still there. As for me, the seven extraordinary days of Apollo 13 were my last in space. I watched other men walk on the Moon, and return safely, all from the confines of Mission Control and our house in Houston. I sometimes catch myself looking up at the Moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the Moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?” –Jim Lovell, Apollo 13.
I was an engineer at the NASA Johnson Space Center for 10 years during the Space Shuttle program. I went to Houston in late 1983 after graduating as an engineer from the University of Michigan, and stayed until 1993. I did and learned a lot of things. I studied how things work, contributed on planning space flights, even got the opportunity to teach others to fly and operate the space shuttle. In a few weeks, one will fly for the last time. It is a marvelous, marvelous triumph of technology and engineering.
But it is a Killer. Or to be more precise, the space shuttle program is a Killer. 14 astronauts have died in flight on space shuttles. All 14 of those deaths were attributable to foreseeable errors, and thus, each and every person that worked on this program has failed – failed to adhere to the principles of engineering and science. Humans need not die in space of known dangers. The unknown ones are bad enough.
There is no such thing as inherently safe technology. It is a myth. Humans find all kinds of ways to injure or kill themselves with artifacts of their own design. The space shuttle is no different than any other technology in that respect, but it is indeed complicated and intricate. Those responsible for its operation were, at times, negligent in their duty to respect it and its nature. Fairly, I was one of those persons, and my inability to constructively make a difference had at least something to do with my limited tenure at NASA-JSC. It was simply time to move on to the next chapter of my life. I never regretted it, and was always grateful for the lessons I learned at NASA.
I often think of Roger Boisjoly, a engineer at Morton Thiokol, who tried in vain to save OV-099 and its seven member crew. I was in building 30 when Challenger exploded, and I watched it live in the same building as the Mission Control Center. For a few seconds there was a huge “WTF?” in the room, then disbelief. “FDO reports the vehicle has exploded.” In hindsight, I always wondered why it was my initial instinct was to leave the building as quickly as possible. I knew the recovery plan would be for a lockdown, and I just didn’t want to be trapped with something I couldn’t control. I just wanted to be as far away as quickly as possible. I could also remember the comment at about -20 seconds when an observer in the room joked “I wonder how tight that teacher’s asshole is right about now?” Couple of minutes later, it wasn’t quite as funny. Roger tried for weeks to get his managers that had the power to stop the launch to act on his data – that the SRB seals had limits that were not understood. The organization would not listen, and thus broke engineering commandment #1: understand thy technology, lest it smite thee.
Diane Vaughn wrote about NASA’s “normalization of deviance” in _The Challenger Launch Decision._ Sometime after graduating from law school, I had this book pointed out to me by an acquaintance at a conference. When asked about my work at NASA and why I left, I compared NASA acts to murder. I was referred to Vaughn’s work, and was enlightened. She was indeed very correct about the culture and operation of NASA. Boisjoly remarked long after Challenger that the same pressures that led NASA to this “normalization of deviance” would drive it to the same errors again. He proved to be correct upon the loss of OV-102 in 2002. As the flight director is famously quoted as saying, upon being presented with evidence of damage to the spacecraft on launch “there isn’t anything we could do about it, so we will defer it to maintenance.” Not only was engineering commandment #1 being broken, but engineering commandment #2 was implicated as well: threaten not thy neighbor upon presentation of Data that could save your ass or thy neighbors’ ass.
Thirty years of operation of space shuttles comes to a close soon. As I type this, the final launch of OV-104 is planned for this coming July, and OV-105 is making its last orbits. When will we go back? I rather suspect soon, but on privately owned, rather than publically owned spacecraft. Why send humans into space? It surely isn’t for science – far more actual discovery (a/k/a “Science”) can be completed by robotic explorers. We have an operating space station, but it is unclear to me what kind and what quantity of actual science is being conducted on it. No, we send humans into space really for two reasons: 1. It is a innate part of humanity to explore – there is no substitute for reaching out and touching it; and 2. it makes kids want to take math and science classes so they can get the cool jobs of going out to touch new places. We can do both of these things in the private sector more efficiently. And fairly, mindful that there is a huge difference between a X-Prize lob to M3/ 100km, and orbital flight out to M25 and back, this is the status of technology today: spaceflight is a known science. We need to stop killing people by using bureaucratic political jobs programs as an excuse for space faring endevours.
I understand and appreciate the nostalgia popular as these last few shuttle flights are conducted. They are spectacular and thrilling to watch in operation. In something of a lesser fashion, I feel the same way about firearms and handguns. But this is not the first time dated and largely superfluous technology has been abandoned. In this case, it is necessary because the management of good science and engineering is apparently beyond our current capability. America is abandoning its role as a spacefaring nation, but that has happened in the past, most notably and tragically when we abandoned Apollo. JFK said we “…[went] to the moon, and do the other things, not because they [were] easy, but because they [were] hard.” We stopped going because the cost was too much to bear. Why abandon space shuttles? Well, perhaps now because they are all commanded by Captain Dunsel. And so be it – spaceflight is now a known science, and like all technology that matures, it is time to present it for use by the People. NASA can get back to R&D – if they dare.
As Susan Calvin pointed out, “You will see what comes next.”
-Richard Glover, JD, BSAE, CFIIAG