Triumphs and defeats

On July 20, 1969, 50 years ago, a team of dedicated men and women successfully put a couple men on the moon, and, more importantly, brought them safely home. This triumph has been all over the news in recent weeks leading up to this momentous anniversary.

I vaguely remember the brouhaha of those days. I was just back from my first year at the University of Pennsylvania and had returned to the scorching Yakima Valley to lifeguard, my summer job all through my college years. As a newly hatching adult, I had, frankly, other things on my mind.

Jump over the moonwalk and skip ahead a couple decades to Jan. 28, 1986, and the more riveting (to me) Challenger disaster. I and my buddies at the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco were watching live coverage of the lift-off (as were an astonishing 17 percent of other Americans) because the seven astronauts included a Concord, New Hampshire teacher, Christa McAuliffe.

Seventy-three seconds into the air, the Challenger exploded onscreen (it was actually breaking apart as a result of aerodynamic stresses). First we were, like everyone, in disbelief — all standing around stiffly in our corporate suits — before grim reality sunk in. Then it was impossible to simply go back to work, but we were in a strange limbo because we didn’t know what else to do. The television coverage — as for the collapse of the World Trade Center — was horrifyingly mesmerizing. A hushed shadow fell over the entire floor of our data processing team.

Within an hour media outlets reported that 85 percent of Americans had heard the news and were following the story. As for me, I thought to myself what turned out to be true, “Some of those astronauts were alive as they fell.” That got my imagination spinning in a ghastly way.

“Some experts believe most if not all of the crew were alive and possibly conscious during the entire descent until impact with the ocean [at 200 mph],” astronaut and NASA lead accident investigator Robert Overmyer said. “I not only flew with [Challenger commander] Dick Scobee, we owned a plane together, and I know Scob did everything he could to save his crew. Scob fought for any and every edge to survive. He flew that ship without wings all the way down ... they were alive.”

Post-disaster analysis

The Rogers Commission, formed by Ronald Reagan, investigated and found that the technical problem in the Challenger disaster was an O-ring. This potentiality was known by both the manufacturer and many engineers on the NASA launch team. There is plenty of analysis about how one of those O-rings actually failed, involving language like “glass transition temperatures,” “blow-by,” “extrusion” and “interlocking mortises,” and a second-by-second narrative about those 73 seconds. But the bottom line was that O-rings were designated “Critical-1,” meaning that a failure there would result in the destruction of the spacecraft.

The real cause of the catastrophe was the profound fracture in the organizational culture of NASA itself. Warnings from both engineers and astronauts on O-ring risks in extreme cold — the morning was 30 degrees — were disregarded by key decision-makers. The flaws in the design had been overlooked on earlier launches. Information about the O-ring vulnerability was not passed up the chain of command decisively enough, or if and when it was, it was ignored.

In fact, engineer Bob Ebeling, who fought to postpone the launch, told his wife the night before that the Challenger would likely blow-up. He knew that the O-rings were certified for safe use only down to 40 degrees. (If you’d like to read a thoroughly riveting narrative integrating both astronaut and NASA launch team conversation with telemetry information, look here: https://spaceflightnow.com/challenger/timeline/# There is also detailed information at extremetech.com: https://tinyurl.com/y6pun7bj)

Slipping the surly bonds of earth

So Reagan postponed his State of the Union address, which would have happened the evening of the Challenger launch, and instead gave what has been considered by many “communications scholars” one of the most significant speeches of the 20th Century (written by Peggy Noonan). “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

On March 7, 1986, the crew compartment was found on the seafloor and the recovery of the astronauts’ bodies began. (I’ll spare you the gruesome details.) After 32 months of soul-searching and post-mortem analysis, the NASA program started up again and operated successfully for a while.

Then on Feb. 1, 2003, the re-entry disaster of the spacecraft Columbia took place. Again seven astronauts were lost in what was deemed to be the result of thermal insulation foam striking and creating a hole in the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing. (Neither the crew nor many in authority in Mission Control suspected the extent of the damage. In later missions, cameras were added to assets for exterior problems.) The compromised integrity of the spacecraft meant it was not able to withstand the blast-furnace temperatures re-entering earth’s atmosphere.

The same post-disaster analysis took place by an outside commission and the same kinds of results were reported. The foam that hit the wing was the technical cause of the catastrophe; but, again, the commission reported that NASA culture was truly at fault. This “foam shedding” (as they called it) had happened on four other missions without negative consequence; so, despite some objections, the inherent risks were never comprehensively evaluated.

Normalization of deviance

And I haven’t even mentioned the lethal cabin fire during the test launch of Apollo 1, Feb. 21, 1967, which killed three astronauts. The same analysis of that earlier disaster — i.e. that NASA had a lack of openness about known engineering problems — was cited. So in all cases, what was behind a catastrophic engineering fault was the failure of humans to acknowledge the risk and take appropriate action.

In my reading about our space feats and defeats, I ran across an enlightened concept for this phenomenon coined by sociologist Diane Vaughan in her book on the Challenger launch — “normalization of deviance.” NASA had accepted deviations from design criteria as normal when they happened on previous flights and had not lead to mission-compromising consequences.

This phrase has stuck in my mind for obvious reasons: we’re experiencing the “normalization of deviance” delivered by the current inhabitant of the White House. Neither our democratic leaders of either party, our judges, our journalists and media outlets, nor even the safeguards built into our constitution seem robust enough (yet) to propel us to change a dangerous trajectory.

Riding our democratic-rocket through this current patch of racism and inhumanity is tricky, granted. But we certainly have enough information by now to know that this can’t end well. Or must we wait for some catastrophic event before we do anything about it?

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