After Ten Years: Enduring Lessons

Challenger Crew

The crew of STS-51-L

From the Rogers Commission to reading Dr. Diane Vaughn’s book The Challenger Launch Decision took me 17 years.  For all those years I had learned the wrong lesson about the loss of Challenger.  The sound-bite explanation kept me in ignorance.  You know, that a rogue manager for venal motives suppressed the concerns of good engineers and true when they tried to stop the launch.  As Dr. Vaughn more correctly analyzed the decision “It can truly be said that the Challenger launch decision was a rule-based decision.  It was not amorally calculating managers violating rules that were responsible for the tragedy.  It was conformity.”  The sound-bite explanation was satisfying, easy to live with, and wrong.  It failed to ask the more penetrating questions.  But even more importantly, it failed to spur specific action.  Just feeling anger at a bad decision or sadness at the loss is diffuse and unmotivating.  It is imperative that we learn the proper lessons from history and use those to inculcate specific actions and behaviors that will result in safety for our people – and success for our missions.

So, ten years after Columbia, what are the lessons we should have learned and should practice every day?  Here are my thoughts especially for those who work in dangerous and risky endeavors. 

 

1.       It can happen to you. 

Just because you are younger or smarter and read history lessons, don’t think that you won’t make mistakes and that events can’t get away from you.  Nobody is smart enough to avoid all problems.  That sliver of fear, the knowledge that the universe is out there waiting for the least lapse in attention to bite, is motivation that just might help you avoid catastrophe.  Or perhaps not.  Let’s hope that Dr. Perrow was wrong and that accidents in complex systems are not simply ‘normal’.  Better yet let us all work to prove him wrong.  The first principle of a successful high reliability organization is to be “preoccupied with failure.”  Do that.

 

2.  Focus. 

“To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences” Or even better:  “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous.  But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect. “– Captain A. G. Lamplugh, RAF.  Life happens, distractions mount.  The probability is that only one critical decision will come to you in your career.  It will come on a day when you least expect it, when you are most distracted.  The organization will fill your time with busy work and bureaucracy.   Keep focused on the important issues.

 3.  Speak up.

Better to ask a foolish question than to allow a mistake to be made.  What is the worst that could happen to you?  Lose your job?  Lose the respect of your peers?  Miss out on a promotion?  Letting a mistake go unchallenged has other consequences:  funerals, program shutdown, and life-long regret.  Make your choice wisely – speak up rather than remain silent.  If the organization can’t stand that, it’s the organization that needs to change.

 4.  You are not nearly as smart as you think you are

Remember your mother’s teaching:  “God gave you one mouth and two ears so that you should listen twice as much as you talk.”  Defer to expertise rather than leaders.   Check your ego at the door. Too many people are so busy passing out their point of view that they fail to hear the warnings that are coming at them.  Listening is not enough; comprehending and acting are also required. 

 5.  Dissention has tremendous value. 

“If we are all in agreement on the decision – then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.” – Charles E. Wilson (GM CEO circa 1950).  If you don’t have dissention, then you haven’t examined the problem closely enough.  If there is not a natural troublemaker in your group, appoint a devil’s advocate.  Make sure the ‘devil’ is smart and articulate – just like the namesake.  Draw people out; make them participate; don’t let them get away with silence.

 6.  Question Conventional Wisdom

“People in groups tend to agree on courses of action which, as individuals, they know are stupid.”  We were told that flying in the space shuttle was just as safe as flying in a commercial airliner, so we denied the crew parachutes and pressure suits.  Patently and obviously wrong to the most casual observer, such a belief can only be called stupid.  We were told the shuttle was a mature flying vehicle with few surprises left.  We believed it even though the truth was right in front of our eyes.  This is, and always will be, risky business.  Challenge conventional wisdom at every chance, look past it for the truth.

 7.  Do good work.

Apollo 1 Crew

Apollo 1 Crew

People thought Gus Grissom was inarticulate.  I think he got to the crux, the nub, and said it very simply and perfectly:  Do good work.  There is no room for half hearted efforts or second best.  Do it well or don’t do it at all.  Don’t cut corners and don’t let your so-called leaders try to bully you into doing less than the best. Don’t accept excuses from others, either.

 

8.   Engineering is done with numbers

Dr. David Aikin’s Laws are true:  “Engineering is done with numbers.  Analysis without numbers is only an opinion.  Not having all the information you need is never a satisfactory excuse for not starting the analysis.  Space is a completely unforgiving environment.  If you screw up the engineering, somebody will die (and there’s no partial credit because most of the analysis was right).”  Remember the motto of the Mission Evaluation Room:  “In God We Trust, All Others Bring Data.”  Don’t be persuaded with arm-waving or specious arguments lacking foundation in first principles.

9.      Use your imagination

Frank Borman said that the Apollo 1 fire was the result of a failure of imagination.  They just couldn’t imagine that a ground test could be hazardous.  Keep your eyes fresh and your imagination active so that you can see the possibilities – good and bad – and work accordingly.

 10.  Nothing worthwhile was accomplished without taking risk.

STS-107 Crew

STS-107 Crew

“Where do we get such men?” – James Michener, The Bridges at Toko-Ri  No, it is not black and white.  At some point you have to leap off into the unknown without knowing everything that you should.  Just because we are afraid, or focused on the possibility of failure, we cannot be paralyzed into inaction.  These endeavors are not for the faint of heart. 

And spend some days in wonder: where do we get such people?  People who put everything on the line for the cause.  We are fortunate to be in their presence.  Make their risk as small as you can, then go forward. “They did not think their sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate their profound wisdom at these proceedings.” – David Buchner

As I get older, the world seems more and more inhabited with ghosts from the past; people places and things that no longer exist.  Relatives that have passed, buildings that have been demolished, machines that have been scrapped; all of these are alive and new in memory.  After the age of 50, this process seems to accelerate with frightening speed.  And without passing the lessons and memories on to the next generations, important lessons will inevitably be lost.  And mistakes will be repeated.  Don’t let that happen.

Be sure to take solemn pride in the accomplishments. Don’t forget those either.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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53 Responses to After Ten Years: Enduring Lessons

  1. spacebrat1 says:

    this is good work… thank you

  2. Steven Collicott says:

    Thank you Wayne.

  3. Beth Webber says:

    After all the suspense and sorrow of the previous posts, this epilogue is a legacy we can all learn from. Take it to heart; use it each day. Indeed, your retelling of these events has been good work.

  4. Yusef Johnson says:

    True words of wisdom!

  5. Robert A Nickson says:

    Superb reading. Many thanks.

  6. Steve Pemberton says:

    This entire series hit home on so many levels. It has been extremely thought provoking, leading to plenty of soul searching about how we approach everything that we do that could affect the safety of others. The message clearly given is that no matter how seemingly safe the situation seems to be, or how mundane, or how many times we have done something, or how much we think we understand it, we don’t know everything. And in fact it may turn out to our surprise that we don’t know anything.

    It has been cathartic in many ways to relive the emotions that we felt on that day, and the following days, whoever we are or wherever we were. I get the sense from some of the comments that this has especially helped many of those who were involved in the Shuttle program at the time of the accident and close enough to the events to still be deeply affected by it.

    For those of us on the outside we got a rare and vivid tour of the inner workings of the incredibly complex Space Shuttle program, and the type of people that did what common sense might say was an impossible job, but somehow they did it and were very successful. And yet even this group of some of the most committed, talented and intelligent people on the planet were still human and could be outwitted by a conspiracy of circumstances, colliding with previously accepted beliefs.

    For some reason throughout the series I kept thinking back to Apollo 1. Perhaps because of the similar reactions from those who were involved. The common theme that I have heard or read from those involved in Apollo 1, whether engineers, managers, or astronauts, was that with so many things to worry about when launching humans into space and towards the Moon, no one anticipated that such grave danger was lurking about on the ground. And thirty-six years later the common reaction seemed to be stunned disbelief that something as seemingly innocuous as foam could be so devastating to such a magnificent and almost mythic machine as a Space Shuttle orbiter and her heroic crew.

    But also perhaps because Apollo 1 was supposed to be the lesson learned. Of course as Challenger and Columbia have proven, lessons have to be passed to each generation, and if they aren’t taught then unfortunately they will have to be relearned, the hard way. The choice is ours. Thanks Wayne for taking the time and care to tell the story as we needed to hear it.

  7. Michael Halverson says:

    I wonder if we can focus too much on failure, to the point that it becomes a evil to be avoided at all costs. We even have the phrase “failure is not an option.” However, like accidents, we will fail at some point, hopfully in ways that don’t result in ultimate consequences, but I wouldn’t count on that. It seems to me the real measure of an individual or organization is how they respond afterwards. Knowing how to fail just might be as important as knowing how not to.

    • Kevin R says:

      You make a good point. I’m in software, and while there is life-critical software, there is also not-life-critical software. In the space business, “failure” means “loss of crew”. In others, it just means “finding a new job” at worst. And the cost of failure sometimes needs to be assessed as part of the risk.

      • It’s worth keeping in mind that your software can be found in unexpected places. While this isn’t an excuse to over-engineer, it is worth exploring the space fully before deciding that “good enough” applies to you.
        I will never forget the first time my software was found in life critical systems and I *never* considered that use case. Thankfully it was used in a way that if it failed the system shut down which was appropriate for this scenario (ie no loss of life if the system shut down, it would fail safely). It makes me wonder what else it is being used for though…

  8. Scott M. Lieberman, MD says:

    Nice review. Good lessons.

  9. Mike says:

    A solid list of good points, and thank you for writing all of this. History forgotten is history likely repeated and we owe better than that.

    I did want to raise a question that’s been slowly itching away at me as I consider the notes and points, based on this specific quote from this posting: Remember the motto of the Mission Evaluation Room: “In God We Trust, All Others Bring Data.”

    I’ve seen that plenty of times here and it’s sort of beaten into our heads as the way engineers should be engineers. But I think there’s a risk of taking this one “out of weight” with other points made in the list such as voicing concerns and having a devil’s advocate. One of the risks when we say “bring data” is setting the subconscious message that if you don’t have data to back up your concerns or doubts.. don’t bother raising them. I consider that a very dangerous behavior in our organizations, as the un-raised niggling doubt (Did I really see a mountain goat in that cloud over there?..) leads to flying level into obscured terrain (Map shows us perfectly safe..).

    Thus the comment I’d make is that there is some risk of contradiction between some of these points (bring data vs raise concerns being the chief example in my head at this moment) and I’d encourage folks to raise doubts when they have them and try to help identify how to gather the missing data.

    I’m not sure how to better marry the two concerns though. The engineer in me certainly agrees that sound judgment should be based on sound data, analysis, study, thought. But I don’t want to ever discourage the what-ifs either, as the failure of imagination has cost us plenty already.

    Any thoughts on if there’s a better way to pair the two philosophies into something more fully compatible?

    • Brian says:

      I had the exact same thought/response, but I don’t have a good solution other than to keep both perspectives in mind. I keep a cy of “Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design” posted right beside me. They’re not always consistent (there are 40 in the set I have), and I might even disagree with one or two; but they’re good anchor posts nonetheless.

    • Dave H. says:

      Mike,

      NASA had all of the data, yet the decision to launch STS-51L was made in spite of it.

      With STS-107, all of the data pointed to the foam strike not being an issue, but we all know that the available data was wrong in this situation.

      If you’re going to do anything, use “In God we trust, all others bring data” as a guideline, not a means to an end.
      While it sounds snappy, it is inherently flawed because it leaves no room for those situations where the available data doesn’t exist to support your position.

      In my experience, the difference between the engineer with a degree and “engineering” is that the latter is willing to listen and consider information from many sources, even those with contrary opinions.
      When someone says “I don’t like this” or “This is wrong”, ask them why they feel that way and what they suggest we do differently.
      It beats the heck out of having to say “I wish we would have…”

  10. Lee Holum says:

    I worked fourteen years as a research chemist in the late fifties and throughout the sixties. We were always supposed to read labels three times and check setups thoroughly, but accidents still do happen.

  11. One of the best posts I’ve ever read. Every point is something that should be put into practice no matter the industry you are in.

    The only point I’d add is around speaking up, if you speak up and don’t understand the answer or aren’t satisfied then keep asking because chances are the person providing the answer hasn’t thought things through properly.

  12. Jim Lloyd says:

    Other commentators have articulated much of how I feel concerning your postings marking the decade anniversary of the Columbia accident and the commentators have done it far better than I could have. Your latest note sums up a prescriptive approach for anyone dealing with any endeavor having a high degree of risk to human life. Even the dichotomy that might exist should cause people to think and have the conversations that are needed. I only add my thanks for not letting us forget and for providing a valuable service to us all.

  13. Markus says:

    The mention of “risk” got me thinking. There’s the frequently uttered line “spaceflight is risky” which often is invoked to mean “we have to accept that things can go wrong” or possibly “if you’re afraid to get your nose bloody, don’t enter” or similar notions. I think I’ve seen you dismiss such notions in reactions to comments here on the blog, because those notions come by as easy excuses that shouldn’t be made. Scapegoats of thinly veiled shrugging indifference. You’re probably both wrong and correct there, and I don’t want to contemplate the intricacies of the potential meaning into the ground, as it very much depends on what the commenter had in mind. Either way, the much better way of resorting to that whole “risk” issue indeed seems to be to say “space is unforgiving” – it’s that unforgivingness that makes spaceflight risky. There’s a lot about the difficulties of spaceflight that can be conquered through engineering, but it has to be good engineering and it has to be done well. Do good work. Space is not going to forgive you if you don’t. Space is not much carelessness and sloppiness that space is going to let you get away with. But in turn, we should accept this as it is if we choose to go, this is what it means to “accept the risk” – particularly for the people who are voluntarily putting their lives on the line by going to space. And we should not let ourselves be deterred if something eventually did go wrong. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go. It means we should do better the next time we go.

  14. Paul Dye says:

    Outstanding work, as always, Turquoise. I departed the office today for the last time, hopefully leaving behind a legacy that built on your own – it should be no surprise that we look upon the hard lessons of the past in a similar light.

    Iron Flight (Retired)

  15. Dave H. says:

    Tomorrow, I will watch the Day of Remembrance observance, and I will cry.

    That said, there are points of yours that I agree with, and some that I disagree with. The only reason I’m still alive after 31 years as a contractor and 35 in heavy industry is that I don’t trust anyone or anything. I’ve learned enough to know the difference between what works and folderol, and while I’m always open to learning new things I always balance them against past experience.

    “As I get older, the world seems more and more inhabited with ghosts from the past; people places and things that no longer exist.  Relatives that have passed, buildings that have been demolished, machines that have been scrapped; all of these are alive and new in memory.”

    How true. But it’s a necessary part of our life’s experiences. When I die, if I smell Raywell’s hamburgers, I’ll know I’m in Heaven.

    “What is the worst that could happen to you?”
    Over the past ten years I’ve had a lot of fun with this one. Black Suburbans showing up at work? Being told to go away?
    How about being invited into the process and actually having a seat at the table?
    How about being invited to the STS-135 launch and sitting with the astronauts’ families?
    No, if I would have thought “I can’t do this” then none of the above would have happened.

    Last but not least, you and I disagree with the “In God we trust, all others bring data” axiom. Granted, I look at it as a benchmark, not chiseled in stone. I had no “data” about the ET stringers on STS-135, only a bad feeling based upon the known “data” that just felt wrong. Having my “bad feeling” vindicated by the root cause investigation merely proves that there must be room for a questioning attitude, dissenting voices, and a dose of imagination to form the toolkit of the “devil’s advocate”.

    Wayne, if it’s your fault then it’s MY fault too! Maybe if I’d been better at math I would have done this the right way…earned a paper degree in school instead of a Senior Field Service Engineer’s title, earned through years of proven performance on jobsites all over the country.

    But then again, I had nothing to lose…no “@NASA.gov” e-mail address, no civil service pension.
    All I had to lose was my soul.

    Thank you, Wayne. Thank you for letting me in to fix this. Thanks to Admiral Gehman for encouraging me at the CAIB hearing.
    Thanks to Dr. Douglas Osheroff, the brother I never had. Thanks to Keith Cowing for posting my blog missive that got the attention of Sean O’Keefe. Thanks to Bill “Reads” Readdy for being my “voice” at the table.

    Thanks to the NASA Family for believing in the dream and staying there until the wheels stopped rolling for the final time.

    I got to live my dream…but I never knew that it was mine until one cold, clear, February morning when our worlds turned upside down.

    See you…out there, somewhere.

  16. Steve says:

    Wayne – Please accept my sincere thanks for your blogging. It is both exciting and thought provoking to share your experiences through your blogging. You definitely have been blessed to have had a front-row seat in the Shuttle program and you have contributed greatly to the Shuttle’s historic contributions to science and engineering. Now, in retirement, your most recent blogs pertaining to the Columbia tragedy present lessons to anyone with an open mind – regardless of their career or level of responsibility. I truly hope that you will continue to share more of your experiences with those of us that are excited by spaceflight. Again, thank you so very much for sharing both great and also heart-wrenching experiences so others may learn from past successes and failures. Best regards….

  17. Al Pastor says:

    The Devil’s Advocate position must be rotated. If one person is always the naysayer, people learn not to listen to that person.

    • Dave H. says:

      They also learn not to listen to the position because the position always runs contrary to the established orthodoxy.
      Changing “prove that it’s not safe” to “prove that it is safe” is an example. How does the DA get enough traction to get people to pay attention, not merely listen?

  18. Joe Russo says:

    Dear Wayne,
    Has it been 10 years already? I moderate a space enthusiasts club in my high school (We even have our own club patch!) and our meeting today will be dedicated to Columbia, her crew and the people in Mission Control.

  19. John Bradley says:

    Shared with my swim team today – good lessons and thoughts for young people to ponder.

  20. Frank Brody says:

    Outstanding lessons learned. I have shared with NWS colleagues.

  21. Brent Clanton says:

    Quite profound. Thanks for your unique perspective.

  22. Randy Bettes says:

    I remember this morning very well. My wife and I were visiting her parents in Tyler, TX. While we were having breakfast there was an explosion that rattled the windows. Being a Houston firefighter I immediately knew something bad had happened. I went outside to look for smoke in the area because it sounded so close. After seeing nothing, I went back inside and turned on the television and the news channels were reporting the disaster. I was amazed that the explosion sounded so close but had actually been over 100 miles away. I watched all day long thinking about what the crew had gone through. On our way back home to Houston we traveled Hwy. 155 toward Palestine and I was amazed at the amount of shuttle debris that was along the side of the road and in the median. Seeing the pieces really brought home the true meaning of what had happened, One never knows when their time has come, we can only hope that it is swift and painless. Thank you for recounting your story from the inside.

  23. DAGray says:

    I hereby volunteer for the position of Devil’s Advocate for the view that the potential rewards from the current manned spaceflight program are vastly overwhelmed by the risks of sending any more brave men and women into space, certainly not when machines can do the same job for us.

    • waynehale says:

      I’d like to have that discussion with you . . . but for another day.

    • Markus says:

      I’ll offer my usual rebuttal to this notion, which is (1) no one gets “sent” as in ordered to go. They’re all volunteers, they all choose the profession themselves, in almost all cases because they considered the effort worthwhile and believe in the cause. People who choose to fly in space accept the risks involved, so while everyone working on a program needs to be concerned with making things work as flawlessly as possible to minimize any risks (see above), I personally feel better leaving it to the people sitting in the spacecraft to decide what an “acceptable risk” versus the benefits is. And (2), if the impact and offsprings and benefits and meaning of manned spaceflight have taught us one thing, then it has got to be that machines can not do the same job for us. There are some things they can do equally well, some things they can do better. Other things will always be a human domain no matter how sophisticated technology becomes. For starters, landing on the moon wasn’t a big deal as long as robots did it.

      And besides, I don’t see how risks as such can overwhelm benefits. Errors can overwhelm benefits, accidents, loss of money, loss of hardware, loss of life – all that can amount to a “big prize to pay” for the rewards, maybe too big a prize in some cases. But risks per se are probabilities, nothing else. If nothing bad happens on a spaceflight, it’s nevertheless still just as risky, but obviously not “overwhelming” the benefits.

  24. Matt Cleary says:

    Thank you.

  25. perkeau says:

    Many are wondering, why was docking with ISS and waiting for rescue not an option?

  26. perkeau says:

    Why was the ISS not an option?

    • waynehale says:

      In very simple terms, there was not enough fuel for Columbia to get their. For those who want to know more, the orbital inclination for STS-107 was 40 deg, the orbital inclination for the ISS is 51.6 deg. The delta V requirement to change inclination is approximately 1000 ft/sec/deg. With fully loaded OMS tanks the shuttle is capable of about 1,500 fps delta V; to change inclinations that much would have required approximately 12,000 fps, or over 10 times the capability onboard.

      • kevin r says:

        I read somewhere that “we could maybe have had them stretch their O2 and food to last long enough to get them with another shuttle.” Could it have been possible to send anything unmanned (Russian?) with consumables? Does Baikonir at the wrong latitude for that?

      • waynehale says:

        Russian launches of their manned Soyuz and the Progress supply vessel must go to high inclinations – 51.6 or higher. Overflight of China during boost phase would have been required for a mission to save Columbia. Technically probably possible. But not allowed because of the international situation between the two countries. But also remember that a Soyuz has only 3 seats – and one of them must be manned from launch. So it would have taken 4 Soyuz launches to rescue the crew. In terms of a resupply by Progress (or any other vehicle like the speculation about Ariane or Pegasus or the like) is that matching the fittings and pressures to resupply the oxygen tanks would be extremely difficult to accomplish given the short time to build the equipment.

  27. Jonmark Stone says:

    Thank you.

  28. Tom Willis says:

    I am having trouble comprehending the 1st and 10th lessons. Is risk aversion a byproduct of being “preoccupied with failure”?

  29. n6mz says:

    It’s always seemed incredibly ironic to me that the two accidents were caused by mundane items such as insulation and an o-ring. All through the program, I assumed that if something bad happened, it would have begun in an extremely stressed component (the HPFTPs and HPOTPs were always foremost in my mind).

    Thanks for the excellent blog, Wayne.

  30. kevin r says:

    Wayne, thanks for the patient answers to all the “muggle” questions. I hadn’t considered the technical challenges in resupplying. Meanwhile, suppose you did get everyone off of a crippled shuttle – do you suppose you would have tried a remotely-controlled landing at Edwards, or just pointed it at the ocean?

    • waynehale says:

      Not for Columbia; later on after return to flight we developed the remotely controlled orbiter capability for the possibility of recovering a suspect orbiter. Landing site would probably have been VAFB so that if it broke up the debris would fall into the ocean rather than on people on land.

  31. htom says:

    Thank you, sir. The last couple of months of your posts I wish that I — and many of my former employees, co-workers, and bosses — had had to study. I hope your writings will bring better understanding of risk, accepting risk, and how to plan and deal with it to future generations. I admire your courage and forthrightness in so exposing your self-criticism. Most well done.

    “In God we trust, all others bring data.” Heard it, preach it, believe it. That said, that queasy feeling in your gut is data — right or wrong we don’t know yet — and it may be a message from God that you have ignored something. You don’t have to obey that feeling, but do not ignore it. That massively parallel multi-processor with fully associative memory computer you call your brain is raising an interrupt for your mind to attend to. Maybe it’s a bit of bad potato, maybe it’s in a rarely taken path, a subtraction that the comments said was an addition that none of you consciously noticed in the code review. Did the testing reach there? Find out.

  32. Justin G says:

    Wayne,
    Thank you for taking the time to tell your account of the event.

    I was 6 years old when this happened and remember only a few details of my experience. This blog has given me new insight into what really happened and what it was like to live through it.

    I hope to go into aerospace and work for the spaceflight industry, and the lessons you have presented should serve as models for the future generation of leaders.

    Once again, thank you.

  33. Rod Wallace says:

    Wayne, thanks telling the story. The lessons of speaking up and bringing data are so closely tied together, Calvin spoke up alot to me. I did not take the steps to ask if we had adequate data to determine the debris risk. I should have spoken up and discovered the lack of data. I should put in a change request to ask for appropriate testing. Maybe that would have caused a discussion which may have resulted in a stand down after STS-113. If the new guys take these lessons to heart and execute then maybe they won’t have the daily burden that I carry. Thanks for having a forum where I can vent a little.

    • Dave H. says:

      Dear Rod (and the rest of the NASA Family),

      I would like this to end as a positive, although it may not feel like it. You see, sometimes you need to see the scars when you look in the mirror as a reminder. That can be a positive, but dwelling on how those scars got there can prevent you from seeing the way forward.

      That said…let’s look at what happened in the eight years after Columbia.

      It would have been easy to just say “It’s too risky” and never fly again. But it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. Those seventeen lost astronauts would NEVER have wanted that!

      Neither would the rest of us.

      Sure, it hurt. Constant reminders of an extremely visible failure can beat anyone down. But the CAIB set forth a pathway for Return to Spaceflight, and you embraced it and built upon it, and completed the mission.

      Two years ago, after Atlantis had launched, I was exiting the Space Shuttle Experience ride at KSC. The exit is a spiral ramp lined with a bronze plaque commemorating each mission. I stopped at the one for STS-107 and remembered them…then looked to my right, at the plaques commemorating every mission since. Only one plaque was missing, that for STS-135.

      What did you do? STS-118 completed the unfinished mission of STS-51L. STS-125 refurbished the Hubble Space Telescope. Everything that needed to get to the ISS including the AMS got there and the construction of the ISS was completed.

      This isn’t about mourning, it’s about healing.

      We all make mistakes. How we recover from them are what defines us.

      From my perspective, you did well.

      Carry this forward, then.

  34. Jenn Dolari says:

    Hi, Wayne,

    In 1980 or 81, I was in first grade, when our teach, Mrs. Cowan, said we were going to hear about something special. She passed out some of those blue mimeographed sheets filled with pictures and questions and answers and cute little line drawings. We would be talking about NASA’s new space shuttles. And in came some folks to talk about it. Now my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I want to say it was John Young or Robert Crippen. Or it could have been a public affairs officer, I’m not sure anymore…but given that San Antonio in the 80s had about three trillion Air Force Bases it was certainly possible.

    On that day, the day we cut out little shuttle figures on multicolored construction paper, I fell in love with the Shuttle. It wasn’t just any kind of fascination…this is the kind of love you see for fans of football teams.

    I watched every launch I could, even being kept home for a few of them because my parents certainly encouraged my love of astronomy and space. My uncle, a bigwig at Kelly Air Force Space would take pictures of the shuttle for me on the layovers there. One time he even tried to figure out a way to get me right up to it, but couldn’t…I had to do with a view from the other side of a chain linked fence. At that age, that was fine with me. We went to the 84 World’s Fair, specifically because Enterprise was there. I had that cutaway poster of the shuttle that was everywhere back in the day. We visited JSC in Houston, and while it was neat to see the Saturn V pieces there…I was dissapointed there was no shuttle mock up.

    In 1986, I watched Challenger break up, live on TV. Even before they announced what happened on TV, I knew enough about that ship that this wasn’t the normal SRB seperation. It left a deep impression on me…and matured me a bit about spaceflight. This was dangerous business…I didn’t realize a lot of the dangers involved. The SRBs can’t be shut down. The TPS keeps the ship from downright melting from the heat. The jokes about “Needs another seven astronauts” were never funny. The next few years without a launch were anxious years. An off-season that lasted too long…but then we had a return to flight, and I was all smiles through middle and high school.

    I’d always wanted to be involved, but my grades in school told me that when it came to numbers and engineering, cash registers would probably be the limit of my abilities (that said, if NASA ever needed a comic book drawn (or help getting a Nintendo Wii’s wifi connected to a wireless router), I’d put in for that job in a flash). I remained a cheerleader for that ship, and when ISS began to be assembled, that as well.

    On a trip from Pennsylvania to San Antonio, I took a side trip to Huntsville, to the Space and Rocket center. We got into Marshall and took a tour of the ISS mock up they had there. This was my first real view of the hardware of spaceflight. I thought it was hilarious that the mockup had a few Tappan microwaves for paneling…and then realized…yeah, off-the-shelf stuff is probably tried and tested. We saw the Cupola in the mockup (or something like it) and now when I see the folks in ISS looking through it, it makes me want to say “Yeah, that’s what I saw too.”

    To make a long story longer – I’m a fan. A big fan.

    When STS-107 broke up, I was living in Austin. I worked nights, so I slept through the whole landing, hoping to catch it later. Waking up, in the afternoon, I turned on my PC and heard the Weatherbug weather advisory chirp. There was a Space Debris alert. And in that Just-Woke-Up fog it began to come together. STS-107 landing. Space Debris. Track over Dallas. Oh, crap.

    I followed every report, and the evolution of the facts over the months. From the blue lightning snapshot to the turbopumps showing up in Lousiana. I scoured as much as I could, watched very dry NASA press conferences, I wanted to know. I found online versions of the debris videos, and tried to understand the timeline of what I was seeing. When the foam test was done at Southwest Research, I actually regretted not living in San Antonio anymore. SRI is quite literally across Ingram Mall from my parents house.

    When the CAIB report came out, I was working at a place with uberfast internet. I downloaded the entire document and read it front to back. Even the boring bits. And thanks to all those years of being a fan, and studying the shuttle and what did what and what did there…I got the WHAT of the accident. Foam hit the RCC panel…the RCC panel broke open…the resulting blowtorch on entry melted the interior of the wing. It was very dry reading…and very sad reading.

    But we came back. With a deadline that somewhat angered me. The shuttles were being decomissioned in 2010. I wasn’t happy with that decision…but the promise of something Bigger and Better when they were retired gave me hope (which promptly didn’t happen after the retirement, but that’s a rant for a different time).

    The the crew survivability report came out, and read it also from back to front (I worked for an ISP at the time, directly connected to an internet backbone…I sucked down those PDFs in almost no time at all). This was a much more intricate and almost personal account. There was more detailed information here than in the CAIB report (or at least, presented a bit “easier”). The timeline tracks were followable, the pictures and diagrams were heartwrenching. And I don’t even want to speculate on the [REDACTED] portions. It felt less of a “WHAT” of the accident, and more of a “WHY” of the accident. Including much of the behind the scenes struggles.

    I came to these series of blog posts from a pretty sensationalist headline, and read them all. And then I read them all again. And then I read the comments (which I usually never do). Seeing your story, told from a POV of someone RIGHT THERE in a matter of fact, personable “This is my part of the story” and the lessons learned and downright preached in this last blog entry was extremely eye-opening. Seeing your colleages and others offering up their own views in the comments, in, again, a matter of fact personal way, was extraordinary.

    This wasn’t a dry NASA press conference. This wasn’t a PDF report that went on way too long in way too abstract a method. This wasn’t the the WHY or WHAT of the accident. This was the HOW. And an amazingly personal HOW.

    This is the STORY behind the accident. That the people behind the names of Linda Ham and Ron Dittmore and all the others aren’t just cardboard stand ups that had said X and did Y and prepared Z. These blog posts show the people and the decisions and the restrictions placed on them. You’ve humanized these events, and made me realize that the lessons of STS 51L and STS 107 aren’t “An Engineer Made a Bad Decision” and “We Should Have Gotten Those DoD Pictures” but, “We Are All Fallible…We Must Take This Lesson And Do Better.”

    Earlier one of the commenters said you should right a memoir about all this. I really hope you do.

    Thank you for these blog posts.
    –Jenn

  35. Al Robinson says:

    Timely and thought provoking, can’t wait for the book.
    Well done Sir.
    Thank you

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