Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

This weekend the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed during its atmospheric re-entry after a successful 16-day mission.

As many of you know, I started off my professional career with NASA, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California; I went to work there the fall after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.

The Essence of Humanity

In my 10 years at JPL, I met a fair number of astronauts and generally found them to be extraordinary people. They know what they do is inherently risky, and they choose to do their jobs anyway. While a few have big egos, to a man (and woman) they’re not swaggering “forget the danger! Let’s go!” types, but were rather very thoughtful explorers — the essence of humanity.

The STS-107 mission patch.

I didn’t know any of the astronauts that died Saturday in the Columbia disaster, but I sure know their types: they’re the kinds of people I like as representatives of America, and humanity. They’re similar in a 21st century way as the astronauts I wrote about in a 1999 entry regarding a special occasion.

After the crash, a friend sent me this quote, which I found interesting considering how old it was: “When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” –Leonardo da Vinci

There’s Another Quote I Like, from Star Trek: The Next Generation (in the episode “Q Who?”) when the character “Q” first introduces humans to the Borg. Picard whines about losing 18 crewmembers in the ensuing battle, and in response Q lectures:

If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.

I agree completely: exploration isn’t safe — not for the Europeans who ventured out and discovered America, not for those who mapped it later. And not for those going out to space.

But you know what? It was worth it in the past, and it’s worth it now.

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4 Comments on “Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

  1. When Challenger happened, the only voice of reason was Chuck Yeager. They only showed his interview once, while they repeated all of the ones with folks whining on how terrible this was and we should stop.

    Yeager was asked what NASA should do. He replied “Find the problem and fix it.” He was then asked if he would fly on the shuttle. He replied “Once they found the problem and fixed it, yes.”

    When asked about the folks who died, he replied “The shuttle is an experimental aircraft. They blow up.” He has seen a lot of experimental aircraft blow up. He came close a few times himself.

    Were both shuttle “events” sad? Yes. Should we stop? No. More folks are killed in car accidents per day in the US than have died in *all* space accidents – US and Russian.

    I was sad to hear about the three that died in the Scaled Composites test last week. I do think they would want the program to continue, after a proper investigation on the failure.

    We do not live in a safe world, and never will. A certain amount of danger is inherent in daily life. We should teach our children that fact. It does not matter what the source – Mother Nature, terrorism, cars, bad food, stupid people, etc. I got very tired of the folks whining after 9-11 that we were no longer “safe”. Grow up America. Some dangers we can mitigate – we can fight and kill the bad guys, but Americans will die in the process.

    I am not making a moral statement with this next one, just a historical one. In WWI, the daily death rate on the Allied side alone was 3,000 men, and that was without anything really going on – no attacks, no mass waves, etc. We are getting close to that total in the current war. Most battles in WWI had minimum casualty rates of 100,000 dead.

    Another fact: the Virginia Tech shooter killed less common (ie non-army) people than die on a “good” day in Iraq. Was it sad? Yes. I worked with a guy whose daughter would have been in that building, in the area of those rooms, if the day had been different. Do not flame me for stating a fact.

    This is a moral statement: I am not happy with the current war, and never was. We were lied to. It has diverted us from Afghanistan and lost the focus on the real bad guys. We are now in a quagmire, led by folks who do not have any real clue about the society and culture of the folks in Iraq and the rest of the area. We are dealing with a culture that has fundamental differences in thinking – and we are clueless about it. Their time sense alone – the crusades of the 11th century happened in their grandparents time.

    If we are going to go to war, we should be much wiser in how we do it. If Americans are going to die in that war, let us not waste their lives.

  2. I remember this day far too vividly.

    I was driving my then girlfriend (now wife) to LAX from Orange County (about 40 miles up the 405 freeway) at 6am. She was going to Orlando for a solo trip to Disney.

    The day before, a co-worker (who is a former member of the astronaut corps) sent me an email detailing how Columbia’s re-entry could be seen from here due to its flight path.

    Half-way through the drive to LAX, I pointed out the window at a bright light in the sky and commented “See that! That’s the shuttle re-entering!” I could only steal a few glances as I was driving.

    Not 5 minutes later, the news radio mentioned that Mission Control had lost contact. I had to drop off my {wife} at the airport with neither of us knowing what had happened. (There was some hope that it was merely a communications problem.) I raced home only to find the first video being aired of the shuttle breaking up. I collapsed in tears. My {wife} had to endure a 5+ hour flight before she could get more information.

    She was able to take the time on the morning of her return flight to go to the memorial at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). I had to wait exactly one year before I could … and again, I collapsed in a puddle of raw emotion at the astronaut memorial mirror.

    I know this was a long narrative of my experience, but as a direct comment to the blog entry … yes, space exploration has been / is / will be dangerous. I am a strong proponent (and dreamer) for humans in space. As you mentioned, astronauts are not ‘kick the tires and light the fires’ macho types. They are knowledgeable. They are pilots with other lives *DIRECTLY* in their hands. They are scientists.

    What has been a problem with both the Challenger and Columbia tragedies is the mentality of faith-based management … ‘I believe it will work, even if I am told there may be a problem’. This, despite being told by the engineers below them that “Hey! Something’s wrong!”

    With Columbia, what they wanted were photos of the orbiter to check out *IF* there was damage, and the managers shut them down. *THIS* is a problem that needs fixing, maybe more than the technical side. Of course the flip side to this is a state of paralysis where no one wants to make a ‘GO’ decision because something ‘might’ happen. A middle ground needs to be reached.

  3. Both space shuttle tragedies were direct results of poor management, and incidental developments of changes to the original space shuttle project design. The decision to economize and use a “1 stage to orbit” plan w/ the oversize fuel tank & strap-on SRBs vs. the original piggy-back flight to high altitude & disengage meant that the tiles take a lot more abuse than intended.

    Perhaps it’s time for America to reinvest in its manned spaceflight program, complete the Space Shuttle to its original design outline, and apply some advanced management skills, & then move on to the permanent lunar base that is the obvious next step once the ISS is complete? Regrettably, I don’t expect any such progressive thinking from any of the stuffed shirts available to the voters in the 2008 elections.


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