Small plane crash in Las Vegas kills 6

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 secrecy.

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 control.

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

 pieces of 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 debris.

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 with ambition.



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