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A disaster of technology

[ 42 ] January 28, 2011 |

For somewhat obscure reasons the Challenger disaster became, in the USA, what (much more understandably) the assassination of JFK had been for a previous generation: a shocking event whose symbolic resonance was such that, as the cliche has it, everyone can remember where they were when they first heard the news.

One of the odder aspects of the event was the extent to which, in the aftermath, the whole business never took on any real taint of scandal, even though it was a scandal.

First, the whole shuttle program was — and remains — a classic bureaucratic boondoggle: a massive waste of public resources on a venture that never had any good scientific, economic, or even non-utilitarian justification. (It has been noted that using the shuttle to put payloads in to orbit is the equivalent of putting a postcard into a safe before mailing it.) As for the “romance” of human space flight, the original thrill of placing people in low-earth orbit — the shuttle never rises more than a few hundred miles above the earth’s surface — understandably faded long ago.

But beyond that, the specific cause of the disaster, which took the life of a civilian schoolteacher as her own students were watching, was a combination of a very familiar and predictable brand of managerial incompetence, manifested in a willingness, for both psychological and political reasons, to wildly over-estimate the safety and reliability of shuttle flight. That was made clear by Richard Feynman in his understated — and therefore all the more devastating — critique of the program, which he appended to the Challenger Commission’s whitewash of the disaster. Feynman’s short but very detailed report is well worth reading in its entirety, as it captures the essence of what Charles Perrow has since named “normal accidents.”

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  1. rea says:

    . . . and if they had listened to Feynman, they would not have lost another one

  2. BigHank53 says:

    Persons interested in aerospace forensics should read the Columbia report.

    http://www.nasa.gov/columbia/home/CAIB_Vol1.html

    And yeah, Feynmann was so right.

  3. Halloween Jack says:

    The romance of human space flight isn’t about the view from orbit, Paul. It’s wrapped around the idea that humanity is smart enough, and tenacious enough, to not depend on its home planet for its survival. (And before you come back with “well, we should just take better care of our home planet”, well, duh, but that’s not going to help during the next mass extinction event.)

    • Brett says:

      That’s a very long-term goal, though. Even if we put a ton of money into manned space flight and colonization, it would take a lot of time to get colonies that would be self-sufficient from Earth.

      In the mean-time, we can stop some of the worst stuff out there (like asteroids) with good inter-planetary spacecraft.

    • Warren Terra says:

      I’m all in favor of space colonization – but Onanism In Orbit isn’t the way. We’re sending monkeys with haircuts into low earth orbit to babysit gear that’s there to enable us to have monkeys with haircuts in orbit. We haven’t generated any significant scientific findings through manned spaceflight since the moon landings (with the exception of the unnecessary and indeed burdensome intrusion of manned spaceflight into the realm of unmanned orbital telescopes), but have managed to spend an incredible amount of money, to cripple our (fantastically scientifically productive) unmanned spaceflight program, and to kill a dozen people. Contrary to your comment, the romance of the view from orbit has been just about the only product of the manned spaceflight program for decades, and it’s the only foreseeable product for decades to come.

      If we are really interested in space colonization, then the path is rather clear: we need more unmanned space exploration looking for resources; more research into unmanned prospecting for those resources; and a new, improved version of the Biosphere project so we know how to build a self-sustaining colony up there. A bunch of schmoes in low orbit calling down to Houston for take-out isn’t colonization.

      And, yes, since it’s perfectly clear we’re not going to have self-sustaining space colonization anytime soon, we do need to worry about preserving life here on Earth.

      • Hogan says:

        “NASA are idiots! They want to send canned primates to Mars!”
        –Charles Stross

      • Bill Murray says:

        The Space Shuttle program has been involved in a considerable amount of global climate research

        If we are really interested in space colonization, then the path is rather clear: we need more unmanned space exploration looking for resources; more research into unmanned prospecting for those resources; and a new, improved version of the Biosphere project so we know how to build a self-sustaining colony up there.

        much of this type research is ongoing or soon to be starting — depending on NASA funding levels.

        • Warren Terra says:

          1) I call BS on your statement that the Shuttle “has been involved in global climate research”. I’m sure that important climate satellites have been deployed from the Shuttle, but at greater expense and delay than without it (and with limitations on which orbits can be achieved). If humans on the shuttle ran any experiments themselves, then given past track records I am really pretty confident that they were near-meaningless, or that if remotely meaningful they could better have been done without humans.

          2) I hope some of the sort of research I described is happening. But you will note that none of it depends on launching meat into orbit; some of it (the self-sustaining biosphere research) doesn’t require that anything leave the ground anytime soon. It has consistently been the case that unmanned projects and ground-based projects are stripped of their funding or delayed for the benefit of the manned spaceflight argument. Unless you wish to argue that the meager remaining funding allotted to unmanned spaceflight depends on the effect on the public and on Congress of the symbolic, advertising value of manned spaceflight, manned spaceflight is moot at best and harmful at worst. Mind you, the ‘advertising’ argument might be correct – but it’s not terribly pretty.

      • HMS Glowworm did 9/11 says:

        The last vaguely coherent argument of the manned spaceflight crowd was that it inspired kids to get into the hard sciences. Even that should be dead by now. Go to any college dorm and compare the number of posters you see of Hubble photos to the number of pictures of the ISS.

        Hell, for a tenth of the price of the ISS, we could easily have found Europan life by now.

    • HMS Glowworm did 9/11 says:

      At no point in Earth’s 4.5 billion year history has it ceased to be the most human-friendly biosphere in our solar system. Earth has still been marginally habitable after every extinction level event; Mars has never been habitable.

      Even if Earth’s surface somehow became completely uninhabitable, the Strangelove mineshaft solution is far more practical and scalable, and far less expensive, than putting giant tin cans in LEO or trying to Terraform Mars.

      Face it; manned space flight is a military-industrial dick-wave. Always has been, always will be. If we ever put a man on one of the moons of Epsilon Eridani b (or whatever), it will only be because we found a radio source in Pegasus that we want to intimidate with the size of our relativistic missiles.

  4. Walt says:

    It’s not really a cliche, though. I really do remember where I was when I heard that the Challenger had exploded, even though at the time I didn’t think it was symbolic of anything.

  5. MobiusKlein says:

    I remember it as scandal, and the engineering and management failures leading up to it are a beacon to me.

    The level of paranoia needed to make good solid code for mass production is crucial.

  6. Brett says:

    If I remember correctly, the original goal for the shuttle was basically to be a “space truck” – you send up people, some equipment, and small payloads into orbit with it. The “boondoggle” side of things emerged when NASA was facing major budget cuts, and decided to try and make it an all-in-one thing.

    As it is, I think they’re working on re-usable capsules, and some of the newer versions of rockets used to send payloads into orbit – like the most recent Ariane rocket – are man-rated.

    • Warren Terra says:

      The shuttle was described as reusable, but in practice it was remanufacturable. In addition to the obviously disposable rocket boosters and external fuel tank, before it could be relaunched the shuttle had to be subjected to a regimen of service, inspection, disassembly, and parts replacement regimen that when launched again it was scarcely the same craft. The only at-all compelling argument for the shuttle was its impressive cargo capacity for trips from orbit to earth, a capacity of limited usefulness.

  7. Jim Harrison says:

    Unmanned space flight makes economic and scientific sense. The manned space program is just America’s version of building a pyramid.

  8. Jude says:

    Space colonization?

    Ha. Ahahaha. AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

    We are bound to this little globe. We evolved here, and that’s where we’re gonna stay. There’s nowhere else that would be amenable to our life. I don’t want to sound New-Agey, because that’s not where this is coming from.

    Our lives are dependent on a mind-boggling number of interconnections with a stunning number of different life forms–as they should be, because, remember, life on this planet has been co-evolving for the better part of 4 billion years. Forget to take a few key bacteria with you on your colonization project, and you’re doomed. Forget a kind of fungus that you didn’t know was important? You’re screwed. Got no weathering or volcanism? Oops. So, basically, you’re doomed, because we haven’t even begun to comprehend just how reliant we are on everything around us.

    So, unless you can replicate the entire earth (and the moon!) and put it in orbit at an equivalent distance from a stable, main-sequence yellow star, we’re stuck here. And that’s obviously never going to happen. Fantasies to the contrary are just as baseless as stories about dragons and wizards.

    • wengler says:

      Going to space used to be a fantasy too. If human civilization is going to be a million year endeavor, then space exploration and colonization is inevitable.

    • Brett says:

      Forget to take a few key bacteria with you on your colonization project, and you’re doomed. Forget a kind of fungus that you didn’t know was important? You’re screwed. Got no weathering or volcanism? Oops. So, basically, you’re doomed, because we haven’t even begun to comprehend just how reliant we are on everything around us.

      Yet somehow people managed to survive in space stations for over a year at a time.

      We don’t need all that stuff if we’re willing to live in habitats. All we need is the ability to grow food, clean the air, repair the habitats, and gather resources in space. That’s it.

    • ajay says:

      Our lives are dependent on a mind-boggling number of interconnections with a stunning number of different life forms–as they should be, because, remember, life on this planet has been co-evolving for the better part of 4 billion years. Forget to take a few key bacteria with you on your colonization project, and you’re doomed. Forget a kind of fungus that you didn’t know was important? You’re screwed. Got no weathering or volcanism? Oops. So, basically, you’re doomed, because we haven’t even begun to comprehend just how reliant we are on everything around us.

      Which elegantly explains why it was impossible for humans ever to leave Africa. “You can’t cross the Bering Strait, Maker-Of-Axes! The ecology on the other side is completely different! Different plants, different animals… don’t be a fool!”

  9. wiley says:

    Isn’t the shuttle being used to ferry astronauts to and from the space station where ostensibly valuable scientific research is being done?

    I remember where I was when I heard a buzz about something happening. When I got home and turned on the television, my first thought was that there was a nuclear confrontation. My response could be summed up as “It’s just the space shuttle exploding”—a sad, embarrassing, costly industrial accident. People die on the way to work and at their jobs every day and are quickly forgotten.

  10. wiley says:

    The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons by Scott Douglas Sagan is a good book examining normal accident theory and the other theory (that I can’t recall the name for) that there is such a thing as “fail-safe” environments.

  11. Mikey says:

    The space shuttle was designed as a weapons system. It was able to carry and deploy more than one satellite at a time. Since the arms race in space was scored by satellite launches — that is, we could count theirs by the number of lift-offs our satellites could see, and they could count ours in the same way — the shuttle eliminated the Russians’ ability to keep count of our space-based weapons and spy satellites.
    Of course nothing that expensive ever was, or could have been, funded unless it was a weapons system. “Science”, I believe, was a public relations shibboleth then as now. That is not to say there hasn’t been any science won in the bargain. Only that the eye popping cost and wastefulness of the shuttle program is easily explicable.

    • idlemind says:

      I’ve not heard the multi-satellite rationale before, but I remember that the shuttle was originally a joint project of NASA and the Air Force. The latter eventually gave up on it after repeated delays and launched its satellites on old-fashioned rockets. But by that time the shuttle’s configuration was essentially inalterable.

    • ajay says:

      The space shuttle was designed as a weapons system. It was able to carry and deploy more than one satellite at a time. Since the arms race in space was scored by satellite launches — that is, we could count theirs by the number of lift-offs our satellites could see, and they could count ours in the same way — the shuttle eliminated the Russians’ ability to keep count of our space-based weapons and spy satellites.

      Sort of. There were two main military influences on Shuttle design: the need to launch very large spy satellites necessitated a very large payload bay; and the desire to run single-orbit missions from Vandenberg AFB necessitated cross-range capability, which meant big wings with lots of heat shielding. As it turned out, the USAF never flew a mission from Vandenberg, and NRO used heavy-lift expendables to launch most of its spy satellites anyway.

  12. Mikey says:

    Oops. Make that “Soviets” not “Russians'”

  13. Brenda Helverson says:

    In one of his autobiographical books and before he joined the Shuttle Commission, Richard Feynmann said that he didn’t think that the Shuttle was very important because he never saw any new science that was developed there.

    Let’s not forget that the Shuttle Commission was chaired by William Rogers, Trickydick Nixon’s Secretary of State. Rogers initially refused to include Professor Feynmann’s research in the Report and only included it as an Appendix after Dr. Feynmann refused to sign the Report without it. So in many regards, Trickydick did it to us again.

  14. asdfsdf says:

    Just feel that I should post Jupiter Direct, in case nobody here has heard of it. The Constellation program was…troubled.

  15. wengler says:

    After going to the moon, there is only one logical next step: MOON BASE.

    Moon bases are pretty damn necessary if we want to go any farther in the solar system. Just think for the cost of pointless wars we could’ve had moon bases. FUCKING MOON BASES!

  16. LosGatosCA says:

    The shuttle serves two purposes. Primarily it’s been a cash conduit to the contractors to operate outdated technology. Secondarily, it functioned as a thrill ride rewarding accomplished scientists willing to submit themselves to the rigors of the program.

    For the American people it was a reminder of past glory and a symbol of what no other country has done.

    It’s a vanity program on every level.

  17. Eli Rabett says:

    The shuttle is not about science, it is about engineering and flying, and pilots and engineers are a lot stronger in the US government agencies than scientists. As a friend says “NASA flies bricks”. It is the flying that is the point, not the science or anything els.

  18. Sean says:

    Nice review. NASA’s manned space program is an infantile obsession at this point. Thank God, Feynman was around to point out that “reality must give way to public relations because nature cannot be fooled.”

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