A 6-part series just
beginning Dec. 20 '03 in the aerospace-friendly Los Angeles Times
will present an authoritative and
scathing indictment of NASA's
decision-making, management and technical culture in regard to
shuttle operations and safety issues, based on content from the
STS-107 post-crash investigations.
The series begins at:
Some heavy breathing, but the point is clear enough to those who
want to know it. An excerpt:
Call it forensic engineering or, more plainly, detective work.
The Columbia accident investigation was the most exhaustive
scientific inquest ever undertaken.
Suspicion led down a hundred blind alleys. Investigators quarrelled.
Mission insiders tried to control the probe. Outsiders railed about
The investigators mustered the most sophisticated techniques that
science could devise — X-ray scanners, neutron beam machines,
hypersonic wind tunnels.
They also used red food colouring, a bicycle pump, a hobby-shop
hacksaw and a steam iron.
They conducted some tests in classified military laboratories,
others in the nearest kitchen sink.
In arcane debates about trapped-gas analysis, radar cross sections
and spatter metallurgy, they stalked answers to wrenching questions
of guilt, shame and responsibility.
Leroy Cain's shuttle was lost, and now everyone in the room would be
caught up in the investigation.
Every imperfection they found revealed a human face.
All that they discovered reinforced what Hallock learned by dropping
his No. 2 pencil.
The space shuttles are by design unsafe.
As the most complex flying machines ever assembled, each shuttle
contained more than 2.5 million parts, 230 miles of wiring, 1,060
valves and 1,440 circuit breakers. All of it had to function
properly at extremes of speed, heat, cold, gravity and vacuum — the
interaction of its parts just at the edge of human understanding and
From lift-off to landing, the shuttles flew in peril.
In orbit, they maneuvered through a hailstorm of 10,000 man-made
objects larger than a softball and millions of smaller
debris. At orbital velocities, an object no larger than a pea
carried the force of a falling 400-pound safe.
During NASA's first 75 shuttle flights, technicians had to replace
60 cockpit windshields — at $40,000 each — because of pitting from
But launch was even more dangerous. Orbiting junk at least could be
tracked by radar and avoided.
For all their efforts, shuttle engineers could not stop ice and
chunks of insulating foam from falling off the shuttle's 15-story
external fuel tank and striking the spacecraft during its
eight-minute ascent into orbit.
Agency engineers could not fix this fundamental flaw, nor could they
craft a safer vehicle. They dared not abandon the only vehicle the
country had to carry people into space.
So NASA continued to launch the shuttles, gaining confidence each
time the crew returned safely.
"The program had been put in this box they could not get out of,"
said Scott Hubbard, director of NASA's Ames Research Center in
Mountain View, Calif., and a member of the investigating board.
Blind to the consequences, they had constructed a trap and baited it