Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Columbia Accident Investigation Board final report

Back in May I wrote a bit about the ongoing state of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The CAIB's final report was published last week and others (like space policy wonks Jim Oberg here, Rand Simberg here and his Transterrestrial Musings blog, and Keith Cowing's Nasawatch and responses) have talked about it ad nauseum, but here's a bit about my take on it.

It's not ugly, it's just depressing. I want to believe that NASA is the best that this country can do, with the best people running the show so we can get out there and explore space. I want to have something we can be inspired by, something that will make people want to take part in. But the International Space Station isn't sexy. Or the shuttle, for that matter. It's what we've got for the next decade, at least, though.

But the CAIB report faults NASA management for their handling, mishandling, and non-handling of the Columbia accident, starting well before and while it was fatally wounded in orbit. Jorge Frank, one of my co-workers who also posts on usenet's sci.space.shuttle newsgroup, succinctly summarized a number of things that are disturbing in hindsight:

  1. the fact that NASA knew about the ET foam shedding problem since 1981, but never considered it important enough to ground the fleet to fix
  2. the fact that NASA never performed foam impact testing on the RCC before deciding to live with the foam shedding problem
  3. the fact that, due to the lack of foam impact testing, the Debris Assessment Team had to use a software tool to analyze a foam strike that was far outside the database to which the tool was validated
  4. the fact that the MER manager's presentation of the Debris Assessment Team's conclusions to the Mission Management Team systematically downplayed all the team's uncertainties regarding the validity of said conclusions
  5. the fact that the MMT was unaware that three separate teams were requesting imaging, and in cancelling one of them, inadvertently cancelled all three
  6. the manner and extent to which the crew was notified of the foam strike

Most disturbingly, it's the "it's been safe for the past 112 flights so it must be safe for the next one" mentality.

And it's Congress' "Hey, we support NASA and the space program, but see what you can do on a budget that's 40% less than 10 years ago." A mandate and a sense of vision would be nice too.

Simberg has a great quote in one of his pieces: "As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."

Oh, and I wasn't listed in the Appendix after all. Maybe in a future volume of the Appendix.

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