Human error

Slashdot links to this article by James Oberg about the myths surrounding the Challenger disaster.

  1. Few people actually saw the Challenger tragedy unfold live on television.
  2. The shuttle did not explode in the common definition of that word.
    The flight, and the astronauts’ lives, did not end at that point, 73 seconds after launch.
  3. The design of the booster, while possessing flaws subject to improvement, was neither especially dangerous if operated properly, nor the result of political interference.
  4. Replacement of the original asbestos-bearing putty in the booster seals was unrelated to the failure.
  5. There were pressures on the flight schedule, but none of any recognizable political origin.
  6. Claims that the disaster was the unavoidable price to be paid for pioneering a new frontier were self-serving rationalizations on the part of those responsible for incompetent engineering management — the disaster should have been avoidable.

It’s a really interesting read, especially to me, because I never saw anything about Challenger on TV at the time that it happened. The only memory I have from my youth about Challenger is from sixth grade. I had finally been put into some gifted classes. Most gifted students had been funneled over to Warner Elementary for special programs in fourth and fifth grade, but I had just transferred to public school in fourth grade, and no one suggested me for Warner’s program in fifth grade. I felt as though I had really missed out, especially since that year AJ entered fifth grade at Warner, but also because my classmates had so many shared experiences. I felt like an outsider.

One day, one of them said, “Remember when Challenger exploded?” And I had no idea what they were talking about.

Since then I’ve learned generally what happened, but I have never seen the footage or heard a thorough retelling, so this article was a good one for me to read.

At the end of the article there’s a link to this one: Deadly space lessons go unheeded. In it, Oberg draws parallels among Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia.

At the end of January, NASA faces a triple anniversary of space catastrophes: the three times that astronauts have been killed aboard space vehicles.

On Jan. 27, 1967, during a pre-launch test, an unexpectedly ferocious fire suffocated Grissom, White, and Chaffee. On Jan. 28, 1986, an unexpectedly brittle booster seal destroyed shuttle Challenger and killed Scobee, Smith, Resnik, Onizuka, McNair, Jarvis, and McAuliffe. And on Feb. 1, 2003, unexpectedly severe heat shield damage destroyed the shuttle Columbia and killed Husband, McCool, Chawla, Clark, Anderson, Brown, and Ramon.

As with the disasters themselves, this calendric coincidence was created by the confluence of independent trends and conditions that conspired to set the stage for disaster. But in each space case, these impersonal forces were merely backdrop to the human decisions that through their flaws were the immediate causes.

It was at this stage — the choices made or not made by human beings — that each of these three disasters could have been averted. That the NASA space team failed to do so not once or even twice but three times is the true disaster. None of these people needed to die; their deaths taught NASA nothing that it shouldn’t already have known. And that’s the true tragedy of these three events.