A Title of Remorse
February 1, 2003 6:58 PM   Subscribe

A letter to the President. From one thing to another, so much for which to be accountable.
posted by the fire you left me (48 comments total)
Worries about the budgeting of NASA resources date earlier than that. From CNN, February 2002:

The space shuttle program, which Bush administration budget documents scold for inefficient safety upgrades, would receive about $65 million less than its $3.3 billion last year.

In fact, the White House plan would consider outsourcing many shuttle jobs to private contractors, and even sell off some of the shuttle hardware.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:14 PM on February 1, 2003

The Shuttle program is designed to fail. There are only 5 total and new ones are not being built and old ones are decaying and blowing up. If nothing else simple metal fatigue eventually bend a paperclip too many times the shuttle has a limited lifespan. How many lives balanced against national treasure are we willing to weigh.
posted by stbalbach at 7:21 PM on February 1, 2003

The list of aborted missions in the article nearly seems to defeat the engineer's case. There were defects, but they were catching the defects. They probably thought they'd continue to catch them.

Of course, if there was an increasing incidence of defects, that oughta worry anyone.
posted by namespan at 7:22 PM on February 1, 2003

From one thing to another, so much for which to be accountable.

That's a distastefully loaded comment, what is its purpose?
posted by hama7 at 7:24 PM on February 1, 2003

Also, tfylm, the quote from Richard Bloomberg is also mentioned in this article, but expands on how his opinion was handled:
One of the roots of my concern is that nobody will know for sure when the safety margin has been eroded too far," Blomberg told Congress "All of my instincts, however, suggest that the current approach is planting the seeds for future danger."

Last year, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel's first finding said:

"The current and proposed budgets are not sufficient to improve or even maintain the safety risk level of operating the Space Shuttle and ISS (International Space Station).

The panel said: "When risk reduction efforts . . . are deferred, astronauts are exposed to higher levels of flight risk for more years than necessary."

Testimony at that hearing highlighted $229 million in budget cuts to shuttle safety upgrades in the last three years' budgets. The annual shuttle budget is about $3.2 billion.

Six of those panel members were dismissed in March 2001 after making such complaints for years.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:28 PM on February 1, 2003

The shuttle fleet is over 20 years old. Even if no malfunction had ever been noticed, this is something that should have been taken into account by NASA.
posted by 111 at 7:39 PM on February 1, 2003

I worked for a Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA grant to Penn State University for a satellite program launching in the fall of this year.

Throughout my tenure there, there was an ongoing conversation regarding the budget constraints being levied throughout the space program's and NASA's (then) new slogan "Better, faster, Smaller" (or sometimes, "Better, Faster, Cheaper").

The jet propulsionists, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, et al, had a response to the slogan that I think is relevent now:

"Better, faster, cheaper? Choose two."
posted by jdaura at 7:51 PM on February 1, 2003

The shuttle fleet is over 20 years old.

That's like saying that the B52 bomber fleet is 45 years old. They have gone through many upgrades and rebuilds. If you restore a Cadillac, and the only thing left that was original is the horn button, is it still an old car?
posted by machaus at 7:51 PM on February 1, 2003

The shuttle fleet is indeed old. A great argument for my proposition to cancel the useless "Crusader" self-propelled artillery system and give that 10 billion to NASA to build new shuttles. Think: one big fat pork barrel program vs. the global flagship symbol of human aspiration, cooperation, and vision.
posted by troutfishing at 7:54 PM on February 1, 2003

If you restore a Cadillac, and the only thing left that was original is the horn button, is it still an old car?

Certainly, since the structural blueprint remains the same. I read somewhere today that one of the shuttles was virtually rebuilt from scratch at some point, but I say that alone is not a sufficiently reliable improvement.
At this point in history, no technological paradigm lasts two decades. Plus a 1 in 200 "contingency", as they say, is too risky-- and don't even get me started on the fact that, as of Feb, 1st 2003, the actual ratio is 2/114.
posted by 111 at 8:03 PM on February 1, 2003

I knew this was the president's fault, somehow... Evil, evil president!!!
posted by jonson at 8:50 PM on February 1, 2003

I remember what Jim Lovell and Kluger Jeffrey said in their book about identifying the cause of Apollo 13 accident, that no single cause was expected to be the solely responsible for the mishap. Instead, several small mistakes happened in the preparation of the flight and they jointly contributed to the explosion. The same can be said about Challenger disaster, it required both a cool day and an engineering problem. I do expect a similar result for the Columbia report, a combination of "small" causes as the source of the tragedy.
posted by MzB at 8:52 PM on February 1, 2003

At this point in history, no technological paradigm lasts two decades.

Tell me about it. I was really fond of silverware, the roman writing system, the codex form, roads, flourescent electric illumination, western clothing... all memories now.

I don't think NASA would be very productive if it had to design a new space transit system every twenty years.

Planes and rockets are incredibly expensive to develop. Have you noticed how all Boeing planes look fairly similar to the old 707? Unless you're working at Groom Lake (no, I don't mean aliens--think SR-71), incremental change is the rule.
posted by tss at 9:26 PM on February 1, 2003

At this point in history, no technological paradigm lasts two decades.

IIRC, most of our fighters/bombers were developed over 20 years ago. The F-15 and F-16 were probably designed in the 70's, and they're certainly holding up fine.
posted by gyc at 9:44 PM on February 1, 2003

My husband (seriously) blames Walter Mondale-both during the Challenger disaster and this one he has basically called Mondale a murderer.
posted by konolia at 9:45 PM on February 1, 2003


*That's* a new one on me.
posted by adamgreenfield at 9:57 PM on February 1, 2003

Space Shuttle's (and airplanes) arn't computers, you can't just throw them away and grab a new one when they become 'obsolite'. they are designed to be repairable. Just like an airplane. You can keep using the same one forever as long as you keep it maintained.

The problem is, that it's a waste of money. For all that we're doing, we might as well just go back to the 'space capsule' system we had before the shuttle. Just throw something down and parashute it back. The whole thing is an encredibly wastefull system and ought to be replaced.
posted by delmoi at 10:02 PM on February 1, 2003

For the words from the horse's mouth -- Nasaproblems. (Google cache)
posted by ?! at 10:07 PM on February 1, 2003

adamgreenfield, you may not remember but Mondale was a fierce opponent of NASA during his days in the Senate. He nearly succeeded in killing the entire space program after the Apollo 1 fire.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:19 PM on February 1, 2003

oh, I forgot to mention with my last post, unlike the challenger (so far) this guy seems to simply be complaining about the lack of a general 'saftey culture' rather then crappy O-rings that the other guy was complaning about.
posted by delmoi at 10:20 PM on February 1, 2003

Safety vs. expense, it's and age old balancing act. And, the space program definitely adds new dimension to the idea of expensive; that's something that can't overlooked here. Another thing we can't overlook is the fleet of shuttles.
These shuttles are aging, and no matter how well they're maintained and overhauled--those structures will eventually fail.
As good as aeronautical engineers are, they can't reproduce (and therefor, destructive test to point of failure) the exact stressors of repeatedly cycling these shuttles into orbital flights, on earth.
As I understand it, the Columbia was built in 1979 and, excluding ST-107?, it'd logged something in the neighborhood of 115 million miles on its frame, through 27 complete cycles (take off to touch down). Consider that every time one of these shuttles re-enters, they literally slam through the top of the Earth's atmosphere at roughly 17,000 mph... That's an absolutely astounding amount of stress.
Even if there was a problem with breakaway insulation damaging tiles of the leading edge of the left wing (a terrible place to have a thermal weakness by the way) you've got the perfectly reasonable possibility that the structure itself just couldn't hack another entry to contend with.
My point is that it was bound to fail eventually, and like earthbound aircraft--they don't experience catastrophic structural failures, when they're safe on the ground.
This disaster is tremendously unfortunate, but even with an extraordinarily cautious mission planning--it may have happened anyway. The loss of life is terribly sad, but I'm guessing the flight in was so violent they may not have even been conscious for their demise--which is some small consolation, I suppose.
At least the engineers have a much better idea of when a shuttle with the Columbia's configuration with ultimately fail, and that can definitely be used to spare lives down the road. It may also provide the impetus to work on the possibility of viable crew escape during fouled re-entry (though I'm not sure it's possible).
posted by Tiger_Lily at 10:24 PM on February 1, 2003

jonson, Why do you hate America so much?
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 10:40 PM on February 1, 2003

I was really fond of silverware, the roman writing system, the codex form, roads, flourescent electric illumination, western clothing... all memories now.

Where I live, all of the utensils, techniques and apparel you talk about seem to have been invented before 1983. On the other hand, people who have held on to complex technology-intensive devices such as computers and cars from the 80's may be experiencing a few inconveniences using them now.

I don't think NASA would be very productive if it had to design a new space transit system every twenty years.

I couldn't care less. When lives are at stake, you either call it off (close down/privatize/restructure NASA) or else you rethink your goals.
What NASA needs, among another things, is real competition/cooperation from other agencies, as well as abandoning its policy of making-do with whatever's available (in this case, the shuttle fleet); it must also quit its media-friendly fairy tale of "giant steps" when it hasn't even figured out how to insulate the spacecraft they use.

Planes and rockets are incredibly expensive to develop.

You may indeed be on to something there. In the name of scientific advancement, perhaps you should relay this major insight to Ron Dittemore immediately.

Have you noticed how all Boeing planes look fairly similar to the old 707?

All of them do have two wings etc. But perhaps you should take into account that planes are not usually subject to repeated entries (28, in the Columbia's case) into the atmosphere at approximately 18 times the speed of sound, not to mention that the story of aviation has had about 100 years of "incremental change", as you put it. The shuttle design was clumsy and far from optimal;according to Jeffrey Kluger, " trying to flying a brick with wings" is how astronauts describe the reentry routine of these lumbering, outdated vehicles.

ps: when you're done briefing Dittemore, please explain how this ground cereal-based illumination system you mention works.
posted by 111 at 10:42 PM on February 1, 2003

gyc, "holding up" means "so far so good"; when you send humans into outer space, another approach should be considered. Feynman's words should be repeated over and over after the Columbia tragedy.
I suspect more than one pilot who now have to use a 20 year old plane would be more than willing to trade it for a newer, more advanced model.
posted by 111 at 10:53 PM on February 1, 2003

You're killin' me brother. I'm pretty sure the guy was being facetious (and maybe you are too) but I've just got to know...
If I say my next door neighbor is an evil, worthless prig, would that mean I hated my country? No.
Why, then, if I say Bush sucks and blows (I often do--and with vigor, I might add) would you interpret that as having anything whatsoever to do with how much I love my country?
I'm just curious, I'm not looking to rumble over it.
posted by Tiger_Lily at 11:00 PM on February 1, 2003

When lives are at stake, you either call it off (close down/privatize/restructure NASA) or else you rethink your goals.

Good to see the pioneer spirit alive and well in today's world, eh? Yes, human lives are at stake. Human lives are always at stake when we seek to expand our frontiers into the unknown.

Tell you what - I'll give anyone good odds on any size bet they care to make that if they asked the people whose lives are on the line here, the astronauts, if they thought that the manned space program should be stopped until it was possible to guarantee 100% safety, or that we should proceed , using our best efforts, even though their lives will be at risk, the vote would probably be unanimous in favor of pressing on.
posted by John Smallberries at 11:09 PM on February 1, 2003

"...if they asked ...the astronauts...if ...we should proceed..."

I'd get on a shuttle tomorrow morning. I wasn't so sure after the Challenger was lost, but after this one I am. We can't stop going into space. We just can't.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:40 PM on February 1, 2003

It's likely that people have sent the president letters warning him about anything they personally are worried about. If aliens invaded tomorrow, you can bet a lot of X-files fans will be asking: "Why didn't he listen?"
posted by kevspace at 12:51 AM on February 2, 2003

When lives are at stake, you either call it off... or else you rethink your goals.
ah yes, this has been the guiding principle driving the advancement of western civilization since the beginning of recorded history.
posted by quonsar at 1:38 AM on February 2, 2003

doh! too late for preview: what John Smallberries said.
posted by quonsar at 1:40 AM on February 2, 2003

Actually, in the flight biz, one of the most reliable ways to judge a good bird versus a bad one -- whether it be inside our outside the atmosphere -- is flight hours. Namely, a plane with lots of hours logged is called a "fleet leader" and you use those until they show enough structural deterioration as to be unserviceable.

The problems with the Shuttle go something like this:

It's old technology... but it's technology that works. When you're building a system as horribly complex as, say, the Main Engine, you don't want to have to design it again. My father worked on the main engine's systems in the 80's and says it's still the most advanced engine on the planet, and gives a higher thrust-to-weight ratio than anything else ever developed. There are systems that can certainly be improved upon, however. Did you know that the computer control systems don't have enough memory to handle lift-off, payload delivery, and landing. Why? Because the memory is too small (I forget exactly how many kilobytes) and has to be loaded about four times by the astronauts from tapes.

But when you're given a budget of 2 B-2 bombers a year, you're not exactly inclined to design a whole new ship just because you can. Testing is also extremely expensive, combined with an optimism from management that borders on dishonesty. Richard Feynman wrote an excellent review of the difference between bottom-up development and top-down development practices, and the results for the shuttle and its systems, in the appendix of the Challenger findings. You can read it. You should.

Just one interesting quote to leave you with from that paper:

"Because of the enormous effort required to replace the software for such an elaborate system, and for checking a new system out, no change has been made to the hardware since the system began about fifteen years ago. [ed: This was written in the late 80's] The actual hardware is obsolete; for example, the memories are of the old ferrite core type. It is becoming more difficult to find manufacturers to supply such old-fashioned computers reliably and of high quality. Modern computers are very much more reliable, can run much faster, simplifying circuits, and allowing more to be done, and would not require so much loading of memory, for the memories are much larger."

Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing the private sector take over the program, just to see something like the Skunkworks' X-33 program in use. Even though the project was cancelled a couple of years ago, they're still holding on to the work they've done in a couple of hangers over at Lockheed Martin. I'd imagine with this new tragedy they might make a good case for starting it up again.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:56 AM on February 2, 2003

Richard Feynman personal observations on Shuttle Challenger are extremely interesting. The final lines are gems:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

It is so simple, clear, "obvious". So "obvious" I think it's routinely ignored.

The problem is, imho, not even hidden. It's clear, it's well understood: money/power are the motivators.Personal enrichment is the final target. But nature really doesn't care if you're rich or poor, as much as your local bartender doesn't care who you are and where you came from, as long as you buy a beer in his bar. As much as a cancer that doesn't care if your a billionarie.

A complete "privatization" of the Shuttle program will not make it necessarily better, less expensive. Neither will the privatization ensure success..

The Commission concluded that the Thiokol Management reversed its
position and recommended the launch of 51-L, at the urging of Marshall
and contrary to the views of its engineers in order to accommodate a
major customer

Full text here

Privatization would probably make the discovery of the reasons of failure harder, because each company manager(expecially if traded on any market) would do his/her best to hide the failures and the errors in management : or destroy clues altogheter (see Arthur Andersen) because they're likely to be people that measure the success of their work using money as unit of measure, and also because they're likely (as well as nasa staff) to be people that are afraid of being judged by somebody that measures the success of his/her work by how close to a budget figure the program is going on (which may influence his wage directly).
posted by elpapacito at 6:35 AM on February 2, 2003

Why organisations lie.pdf:
'Feynman’s explanation was that after the conclusion of the moon project, NASA had acquired
a big organization it wanted to preserve. To do so, NASA’s leadership needed to convince
Congress to fund the space shuttle. To accomplish this they had to exaggerate the shuttle’s
safety, economy, scientific worth, and frequency of flight.
Those selling the program to Congress were not interested in hearing critical comments by
NASA’s engineers. “It’s better if they don’t hear, so they can be more ‘honest’...” Eventually,
disagreeable information from the bottom “is suppressed by big cheeses and middle
managers.... Maybe they don’t say explicitly ‘Don’t tell me,’ but they discourage
communication, which amounts to the same thing.”
Feynman, what a guy!
posted by asok at 8:18 AM on February 2, 2003

According the the Columbia FAQ posted in the other thread, the odds of any new shuttles being built is low, if not damn near impossible because much of the equipment and engineers used to create them are no longer around.
posted by drezdn at 9:08 AM on February 2, 2003

Tiger_Lily, Why do you hate America so much?
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 9:42 AM on February 2, 2003

Tiger_lily, see here. (sorry to spoil the fun, S@L)
posted by ook at 10:29 AM on February 2, 2003

troutfishing, you've mentioned cancelling Crusader half-a-dozen times in two threads. I would e-mail you, but you have no e-mail listed, so I have to do this in public.

Crusader really was cancelled -- already. Company press release (Aug. 9). The funds were transferred to "transformational" technologies (Dec. 2 Pentagon press release). National Defense Authorization Act (signed in October). I know it went back and forth with Congress, but it was all over by Summer, and Rumsfeld won. Remember, too, it was Congress, not Bush, who wanted to save it. The official hanging took place June 19 {googlecache}. Some funding was retained (Nov. 11 release) for follow-on artillery technologies.
posted by dhartung at 11:46 AM on February 2, 2003

so I have to do this in public.

And thus we all benefit from your many informative links. Thanks dhartung!
posted by homunculus at 11:56 AM on February 2, 2003

Thanks for the 'heads up' Ook; I might have known.

For the record, I'm in agreement with elpapacito, privitization presents its own problems--none of which are going to be easier to solve than the ones the program is facing now.

One of the things that ticks me off is that government contracts are rife with the "they've got deep pockets" attitude. They're expensive because private contractors have arbitrarily bumped the costs, the accounting process is poor, the consequences for nonconformity and overrruns are virtually nonexistent... When it comes to expense, the government isn't the problem--private American contractors are.
The second thing that worries me about full privitization is security. Aside from the main payload on these shuttles, we've got up to thirty lockers that store classified and sensitive projects requiring zero gravity, to be completed. I don't want nepotistic cronies being able to hostage our interstellar security for the continuation of lucrative government contracts, like they do with our aerospace and military contracts, here on earth. We've got to put an end to the cozy relationship between our national interests and wealthy cronies of public "servants"--who they're serving is not at all clear to me, these days.
posted by Tiger_Lily at 4:21 PM on February 2, 2003

From one thing to another, so much for which to be accountable.

God bless the grammar.
posted by kayjay at 5:54 PM on February 2, 2003

Dhartung - thanks......It's a good thing too! But I wasn't holding it up as a partisan issue - as I noted, in one post, Don Rumsfeld was one of the prime actors trying to kill the project because he thought it absurdly wastefull. (so....no windfall for NASA?) Moving right along...

Steve_at_linnwood - why do you hate the American democratic tradition so much as to question the patriotism of dissenters? You aren't a closet commie totalitarian, are you? ...no, I didn't think so - it was all a disengenous posture, wasn't it?...or are your political opinions always in such perfect conformity with reigning ideologies that you are never in danger of being accused of dissent?
posted by troutfishing at 8:50 PM on February 2, 2003

troutfishing see here, and chill out...
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 8:59 PM on February 2, 2003

Steve - I am chill...I'm just returning your "why do you hate America?" rhetoric volley. I hope you don't take it personally. I simply feel it to be my patriotic duty. .... Anytime I see on Mefi this sort of corrosive "why do you hate America"? rhetoric posed by those would would question the patriotism of dissenters, I will reply in an appropriate fashion....

""If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter." -George Washington

I was was misinformed about the (continuing wretched existence of) the "Crusader" program, but there are always more gratuitously wastefull gov. programs out there, "DOD and otherwise" [as I said - In fact, two days ago, I cited a "liberal" Massachussets highway project, as one such non-DOD pork-project] which are hoovering up money better spent on programs which would benefit far wider constituencies.
posted by troutfishing at 9:39 PM on February 2, 2003

troutfishing... did you see the This Modern World comic Ook linked?

I think it's pretty safe to assume S@L is using the same gag.

And that you hate America, too. Probably as much as I do.
posted by namespan at 10:39 PM on February 2, 2003

thanks for politely explaining your in-joke, s@l.
it's nice to feel that we are all sharing in the same community.
oh, wait you didn't, ook and namespan did. my bad.
posted by asok at 5:11 AM on February 3, 2003

asok, if I explained it, it wouldn't be an in-joke...
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 8:23 AM on February 3, 2003

Well at least this answers the question "Why do we all hate Steve so much?"

Now now, it's just a friendly dig; everybody put away those pitchforks
posted by ook at 8:40 AM on February 3, 2003

posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 9:40 AM on February 3, 2003

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