Monday, July 11, 2005

Back to the Final Frontier

On Wednesday, July 13, if all goes well, the good ship Discovery will light off its solid boosters and climb into space, the first American manned space flight since Columbia disintegrated during re-entry on February 1, 2003.

Despite my slightly conflicted feelings about NASA, this is a good thing. When a horse throws you, the thing to do is get back on and ride as soon as possible. It's poison to be ruled by your fears.

On the other hand, you really oughtn't to make the same mistakes repeatedly.

On the surface, the Columbia and Challenger accidents don't seem to be too much alike. But, if you look behind the curtain at the management decisions that made the failures possible -- even probable -- disturbing similarities come to light.

There were some unsettling pre-shocks in Bryan Burrough's book Dragonfly. In an organization where safety is a priority, you'd expect that the Safety Officer to be one of the most respected astronauts. Someone with a lot of experience, someone whose ability and reputation were beyond reproach. NASA's Safety Officer was none other than ... Blaine Hammond. An able man, certainly, but one who was marked (probably unfairly) as a washout. He'd never get another flight if he stayed with NASA for another hundred years. So why was he Safety Officer? Quite possibly because no one really paid any attention to the Safety Officer.

It's worth noting that Dragonfly was written in 1999, a full FOUR YEARS before the Columbia incident.

Yes, sports fans, four years. Those of us who were paying attention knew that something was rotten in Denmark, but were utterly powerless to do anything worthwhile about it. We were relegated to crossing our fingers and praying.

So in hindsight, it's plain that the moment something went south, disaster could not be too far behind.

Back in the day, that sort of jackassery would not have been tolerated. They ran a proper shop back in the days of Chris Kraft and Gene Kranz. Important information was disseminated as soon as possible, to anyone who needed to know. They brought the crew of Apollo 13 home alive and (mostly) well, depsite massive damage to half the ship.

Not so in the oh-so-modern CYA era. Denied were the photos that would have told the engineers the real state of the vehicle. Not even on the table were measures to attempt a rescue, if the worst was indeed true. The true extent of the damage could well have become known in time, and Columbia could have gone into a low-consumption mode, awaiting rescue by Atlantis. They'd have had to gone to three shifts at KSC to get the work done in time, but it could have been done.

We can only hope that the appropriate lessons have been learned for real this time. It's a dangerous enough business as it is, without preventable errors creeping in.

But I do have guarded hope in the future. The new Administrator, Michael Griffin, seems to be dedicated to fixing what's broke with NASA.

I can't say that I know Dr. Griffin, although I do own a couple of his books. He's well known, with good reason, as a scientific and technical expert. He quite literally wrote the book on spacecraft design, and it's a pretty good book, too. He's also got some administrative and political chops; he was President-Elect of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics when he was tapped for the top job at NASA. He's got a clear vision of what NASA ought to be doing, and how it ought to be done. The things he's doing are, for the most part, what I'd do if I were ever appointed Head Dictator over the American space program. Wielding a great red axe at the top Center levels, as he's done, is a good start.

So. At long last, we're back in the manned space flight business, after yet another hiatus. And just like last time, this will probably be the safest mission for the next decade, with nothing left to chance. Barring unforseen disasters, we can expect a good, safe flight. And even if something does go slightly cubist, Eileen Collins has some of the best hands in the business. If anyone could bring a sick bird home, she could.

Let's hope the hurricanes stay away for the next couple of weeks. Good luck and Godspeed to the crew of Discovery.

No comments: