What NASA knew
On the tenth anniversary of the Columbia Space Shuttle accident, Raw Story published my first hand account of the Columbia accident investigation. Also published that day on Raw Story was an article titled “NASA knew Columbia crew could die but chose not to tell them” In addition to the dubious headline, the second article contained the following statements which are demonstrably untrue:
A NASA flight director has revealed that personnel on the ground knew in 2003 that the Space Shuttle Columbia would not likely survive re-entry, but chose not to inform the vessel’s crew.
When it became clear that the orbiter was seriously damaged and likely wouldn’t survive re-entry, Flight Director Jon Harpold said to Hale and others at the meeting, ‘You know, there is nothing we can do…’
This is a terrible article that, besides being shallow and grossly inaccurate, misrepresents the recent writing of retired Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale. At no point during the mission did NASA flight controllers or mission managers know the extent of the damage. Any suggestion that they knew about the hole in the RCC panel of the wing and chose to do nothing is either ignorant conjecture or an absolute fabrication.
Perhaps a decade ago when these events took place such shoddy writing would be publicly retracted with an apology to those misrepresented and to the readers. Today’s new media does not work that way. Instead, I am told, that nothing gets deleted, just “corrected.” In this example, the corrections remain mostly buried in the article’s comments section, surrounded by what one always find in comments sections: confusion, irrelevance, conspiracy rants, and, of course, Godwin’s Law.
Rather than refute the author’s mistakes with easily obtainable facts, I present an email I received February 4th, 2003 from the head of the Shuttle Program Office of Vehicle Engineering:
Thank you very much for the pictures. I got all (5). There is definitely something we need to investigate. I will get our image analysis folks to look at your pictures and camera when it arrives tomorrow. Just to let you know, we have really been struggling with finding clues to what went wrong. We have hundreds of engineers reviewing thousands of bits of data trying to get to the root cause. Your timely photo may hopefully explain why we went from an absolutely nominal entry to our tragic disaster.
One would be hard pressed to read this as anything other than what his words say… NASA senior managers did not know why Columbia broke up on re-entry. It would be several weeks until they would have the right answer, even though the foam impact on the left wing was already a theory.
Those clinging to alternative explanations will not hesitate to claim that Ralph Roe was lying to me as part of a cover-up. That cover-up would require the perfect cooperation of thousands of individuals for 10 years… and for what purpose? The reality has been damning enough for NASA, that a known problem of foam shedding from the external tank was hoped and modeled and committed into insignificance, until it killed seven of their friends and colleagues and hastened the end of the Space Shuttle program.
This is why the “NASA knew…” article is so offensive. It does not add to the history of space exploration, it confuses and distorts it. Those persons inclined to believe the worst have their biases confirmed and readily use it to confuse others. A metric of how much damage these few fraudulent paragraphs can cause is found right under the title: “5,293 people recommend this”. My article, same topic – same day, has 73 recommends.
This sort of reporting is neither rare nor limited to new media, and it is rarely worth anyone’s time challenging and correcting. In this example, however, there is something else being missed in the mindless pursuit of “likes” and click-thrus that translate into a blogger’s paycheck. By making a Big Story out of a hypothetical hallway discussion, the author has missed the real value of Wayne Hale’s recollections as a senior NASA manager. Another irony is that I had been following Hale’s blog for several months and planned an article on some of his stories about what he saw at NASA. One would be hard put to find a better, and more frank, source than Wayne Hale.
Many public misperceptions about our space program are about the people who make it work. The public generally divide NASA into two groups, the “rocket scientists”, who design, build and launch the vehicles, and the “astronauts” who fly and sometimes die in them. Throw in some serious crew-cut men in white shirts at Mission Control, and that’s the whole picture (even if that picture ended 30 years ago). The oft-overlooked key to mission success, however, has been the managers. A look at the literature on how complex programs got built soon leads you to people like Ben Rich, 2nd director of Lockheed’s “Skunk Works”, Tom Kelly, who led the team at Grumman that designed and built the Lunar Module, and James Webb, administrator of NASA from Mercury to Apollo. Lesser known program directors, deputy program directors, assistant deputy program administrators all worked as hard, pushing paper, shouting at contractors, sitting at endless meetings, to get the job done. They too had many sleepless nights wondering about countless ‘what-ifs” that could kill the crew. Most began as engineers, getting their hands dirty, before they (often regretfully) were transitioned to management. Wayne Hale was one such manager, hands dirty with rocket engines beginning in 1978, until he retired as Space Shuttle Program Manager in 2010. Hale began blogging about his NASA experiences in 2008. How many senior managers in any major organization can claim that distinction?
Hale’s post-retirement blog contains a series of recollections about the Columbia accident entitled “After Ten Years.” Every word is worth reading, but I will highlight a few revelations. One learns throughout his blogs of the real dangers with flying the shuttles. From some uncontrollable events, such as a coronal mass ejection from the Sun throwing radioactive particles to threaten a crew already in orbit, to a man-made, but unnecessary risk, of testing the automatic landing system on a cloudy runway. Hale does not hold back. One area he details regards the STS-107 mission controller’s worry about the foam impact early in the doomed mission. They all saw the video recording of the foam impact and were concerned. The main worry was damage to the delicate heat tiles, as they were mistakenly reassured the RCC panels on the leading edge were tough enough to take the blow. Hale recounts attempting to obtain imagery of the shuttle in orbit from “other space assets”, meaning spy satellites capable of photographing other spy satellites in orbit. Hale, who lacked security clearance to even know what he was asking for, made an informal, almost casual, request, and not through proper channels. Linda Hamm, who chaired the mission management team for the mission, asked Hale to stop the request, as the information was not required. Hale writes:
… it wouldn’t have made any difference. If there were some magical way to find out Columbia’s status, a week after launch it was too late. The best case scenario – which had virtually no chance of succeeding – would only have worked if action had been taken on the second or third day of the flight; by the sixth day it was too late.
Does this mean NASA managers knew Columbia was doomed and decided as a group to do nothing about it? No, Hale wrote this years later, on reflection of the ‘what-ifs’ and ‘if-only-I-had’ that anyone involved would have been forced to live with. One can debate why the request for satellite imagery of the highest sensitivity was not pursued more aggressively, but Hale saw no ulterior motive on Hamm’s part, nor does he believe Hamm deserves to be the scapegoat for the accident, as some have suggested.
This commentary has touched on many of the complexities of the Space Shuttle program and points toward more detailed and more accurate primary sources about the Columbia accident. There are valuable lessons for everyone in the real facts behind this tragic story. To distort or even make stuff up does not honor the hard work of thousands or the memories of the lost crew.
Pete Goldie holds a Ph.D. and 2 other graduate degrees from “old East Coast universities.” “I merely wish it known that I am a licensed ceramic tile & natural stone contractor and everything I write about space science is not only freely available but eagerly disseminated by federal government agencies through the judicious expenditure of income tax revenue.”