Accident Investigations

This week’s crash of a commuter train in New Jersey plus other recent events got me thinking about the lessons I have learned the hard way through several accident investigations.

One of the toughest parts of investigating an accident is that everyone wants to know the answer, the cause, right away.  Folks, it simply does not happen quickly.  Accidents involving complex high energy systems are tough to figure out.  Even little incidents can be hard:  as we used to say in the shuttle program:  “The first story is always wrong”.  It takes time to get an accurate picture and compile the evidence.  It will be long after the news cycle has moved on to other things before the true cause becomes apparent in these complex systems failures.  The boss and the media want answers right away and sometimes will make something up – or at least grasp on the first theory – to get a quick answer.  Real accident investigators know it takes time.  Typically the NTSB takes a year to finalize their reports; I’d have to say that is about right in most cases.

So I’d offer this explanation about why it takes so long.  And I would offer a few tips and rules from my experience.  This is not what they teach in accident investigation school where the emphasis is typically on preserving the data, making sure the evidence is uncontaminated, gathering witness statements, collecting the maintenance records, examining training records, and the other mechanics of the process – which are important.  These rules are in addition to those good practices which should be followed at all times.  Sort of ‘Gibbs Rules’ here:

Rule #1 for accident investigators:  keep an open mind.  Do not start making theories too early. Stay away from quick conclusions and let the facts lead to the conclusion, not the other way around.  This is very hard to do, not to start spinning theories right away.  Don’t speculate and don’t let others lead you into conversations that speculate on the cause. It is amazing how biased thinking becomes and how easy it is to overlook evidence once your mind (consciously or subconsciously) believes it has a conclusion.  Keep an open mind as long as you can.  When we had shuttle ‘anomalies’ the first analysis was almost invariably wrong and sometimes it would take months before we got to the correct conclusion.  Fixing the wrong thing is never helpful.

Rule #2 for accident investigators:  make a good, comprehensive timeline of all the information around the time of the accident.  This is not as easy as it sounds.  In the rocket business we always have a stream of telemetry of pressures, temperatures, valve positions, operating speeds, etc., recorded in a central place.  But sometimes the telemetry is built up from different sources on the rocket or on the ground.  It is important to dig into the time sources and make sure every event is put on a master time line with the correct and cross correlated time.  When milliseconds count, as they often do in these investigations, make sure that time lags and adjustments in the system are fully understood and accounted for.  For other evidence, video from external cameras for instance, be certain about the timing source, make sure the frame rate of the video is accounted for.  It is vitally important that video or still photos give their evidence in the right time frame.  Knowing what happened when, in the right order is the most powerful tool in the investigator’s toolbox.  Getting all the evidence and timing right can take weeks.  Be patient and adjust the timeline as the evidence comes in.  Continue to keep an open mind at this stage.

Rule #3 for accident investigators:  make sure the physical evidence is examined by a dis-interested third party that is well qualified to evaluate it.  To avoid the appearance of impropriety that may cloud a final report, using a well-qualified lab that is not associated with the manufacturer or operator of the equipment is vital.  Well qualified labs and experts are hard to find and often expensive, but it is worth the time and cost to come to a final conclusion that is as free of controversy as possible.

Rule #4 for accident investigators:  make a fault tree.  This helps the accident investigator build up knowledge about the system and makes sure that all possible causes are investigated.  Fault trees typically are of less use than the outside world may think.  The most important result from building the fault tree is that it makes the accident investigators aware of all the items that need to be examined.

Rule #5 for accident investigators:  ask ‘why’ seven times.  It is much too easy to come to a first level conclusion and leave the investigation.  That is guaranteed to result in future accidents.

I have no idea why the train crash occurred, but let’s take an imaginary trip through the kind of questions that an accident investigator should ask later in the investigation when a proximate cause is identified.  Here is that strictly hypothetical example: Q1: Why did the train not stop? A1:  The brakes failed to apply when commanded by the operator.  Q2: Why did the brakes fail?  A2:  part X in the braking system failed.  Q3: Why did part X in the braking system fail?  A3 It was installed improperly at the last maintenance period. Q4:  Why was part X installed improperly? A4:  The maintenance installation procedure was incorrect.  Q5:  Why was the maintenance procedure incorrect? A5:  The procedure was not updated when a new part manufacturer was selected to build part X.  Q6: Why was the procedure not updated?  A6:  The process for updating maintenance procedures did not allow for a change in part manufacturer.  Q7:  Why did the process not allow for a new manufacturer:  A7:  It was not foreseen that a new part manufacturer would make a part that needed new installation procedures.  Following this hypothetical case – and just note that I know nothing about the train crash, I am just making this up as a teaching tool – an accident investigator would find that the proximate cause of the accident was a braking failure, but the root cause was an inadequate process to account for new part manufacturers and the corrective action is to update the maintenance procedure change process to ensure that when a new part is introduced, the maintenance procedures are updated properly.

It is easy to see that if one quit with the part failure, a band aid fix would probably ensure that that particular part never failed again, but other failures could occur.  Similarly if at step 3, the investigation were to blame the maintenance person who installed the part, not only would an injustice occur, but the way for other failures in the system would be left open.  It is important to get to root cause – which is almost always a process problem – and address that as well as the more simple corrective action for proximate cause.

All of this takes time and discipline.  Months may pass before the real cause of the accident can be established.  That is true for rocket ships and airplanes and I’m sure it’s true for trains.

Don’t expect the media to get this right, or even care about it when the final report comes out.  Short attention span there.  The important thing is that the source of future accidents has been cut off.

Rule #6 for accident investigators:  there will always be conflicting and confusing information.  It is very rare in these failures of complex systems to come to a one and final guaranteed 100% conclusion.  There are always counter indications and other possibilities.  A good accident report will always give the most likely cause and list other causes which are less likely but cannot be completely ruled out.  Absolute certainty is not something that engineers or accident investigators deal in.

So be patient and let the investigators do their job.

Oh, and follow Gibbs rule #13.  Look it up.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Running for President

The NASA JSC chapter of the NASA Alumni League (the retiree’s association) has been trying to get me to be the president of the chapter for years.  I enjoy the organization but did not want to put in the time and effort that it takes to be president.  This year, they finally caught me in a moment of weakness and I agreed to run.  All the other potential nominees breathed a sigh of relief.  I’m running unopposed and the ballots are in, we should hear the results in a few days.

It probably comes as no surprise that in middle school and high school, I was one of the nerdy kids.  Smart with good grades, but lacking in social awareness and completely lost in sports.  That did not prevent me from running for student office; encouraged by my mother I undertook a campaign every year for class officer of some sort.  And of course, I always lost.

That carried over into college; I continued to run for various student government offices and was repeatedly unsuccessful.  One year, my residential college awarded me the Whittington trophy – named for a student who once ran for a student office unopposed but came in third place behind two write in candidates.  My record, while unblemished by success, was never that bad.

Nowadays, I get the occasional encouragement to run in the real political world:  “You should run for Congressman!”  This heartens me but I know that it is a non-starter.  All any opponent of mine would have to do is point out that I spent 32 years as a government bureaucrat and the campaign would be over.

Nor would I want that job anyway.  No political ambition here.

Back in college, I had much better luck getting appointed to positions which did not require an election.  I served on several committees, was appointed to be chairman of the committee that brought speakers to campus, served as an ombudsman to the honor council, parliamentarian to the Student Senate, things like that.  (I still have my rabbit eared copy of Roberts Rules of Order – I guess that confirms my geek status).

I watched with a lot of amusement when one of my classmates ran for student body president on an absurdist ticket.  He really could make us all laugh and made it clear that his campaign was a joke.  I wish I could remember all the funny things that he promised, but it was too long ago and my sense of humor might be different now than what my 19 year old self thought was funny.  Anyway this friend of mine became the class clown, the court jester; everybody liked him and nobody took him seriously.

My junior year, the outgoing president of the student body and some of the other officers encouraged me to run for student body president.  Thought my service on various boards and panels made me a good candidate.  I had some modest name recognition from bringing entertaining speakers to campus (see my post on ‘The Great Bird of the Galaxy; about bringing Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, to speak).

So of course I filled out the paperwork to run.  My only opponent was the class clown.  This year he was running a serious campaign.  He acted serious, he made serious proposals, and said nothing, nothing, nothing to laugh about.  I figured that we would beat me.  Surprise, when the votes were counted I was the overwhelming winner. Unbelievable.

I certainly learned a lot that year.  I got into a verbal tussle with the editor of the student newspaper and learned the truth in that old Mark Twain quotation:  “Never get in an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”  There were factions on the student senate that had to be recognized, soothed, and compromised to get anything done.  There were student protests that resulted in detention by campus security which became a crisis for the student government.  Dealing with the administration was a challenge, but not nearly as bad as it could have been.

But as I look back on it, the number one lesson that I learned is that it is very difficult to transform yourself from class clown into serious candidate.  Apply that as you will.

Anyway, I am waiting for the NAL election results.  Wonder if I will finally earn that Whittington trophy the hard way.

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Gravity

When I was a boy, world was better spot
What was so was so, what was not was not
Now, I am a man, world have changed a lot
Some things nearly so, others nearly not

There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know
Very often find confusion
In conclusion, I concluded long ago

In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure
In my head are many facts
Of which I wish I was more certain, I was sure

  • Rogers & Hammerstein: “The King and I”

 

As a young student, my science teacher made sure that we knew there were nine planets in our solar system.  Nowadays science says that there are only eight plus a host of ‘dwarf planets’.  Lately there has been some evidence, causing some scientists to debate the possibility, that way way way out there is a new ninth planet in our solar system.  But this is uncertain.  ‘Some things nearly so, others nearly not’ as the song says.

Don’t even get me started on the nutritional sciences.  What a few years ago was absolutely bad for your body to consume is now not so bad, maybe even good.  Every week there is a ‘discovery’ of a new wonder food that is guaranteed to help you live longer and healthier.  And in a few years we will be told that it probably doesn’t work that well.  Me, I still take extra vitamin C when I get a cold even though now the doctors tell us that really doesn’t do any good.  Some things you learn early in life are hard to get over.

Just about a century ago, a group of crackpot, radical geologists proposed that the very continents we stand on – made of solid rock! – float on an ocean of magma underneath.  And the continents actually drift – apart, together.  Roundly ridiculed by the establishment in the geological sciences, it took six or seven decades of gathering evidence and furious debate to win over the majority of their brethren.  Literally a tectonic change in our understanding of our planet.  From this we have a better understanding of volcanism, earthquakes, and the distribution of minerals and plant and animal life around the globe.

About four centuries ago, Isaac Newton discovered and mathematically described the laws of universal gravitation.  An unseen force, acting at a distance, caused an attraction between everything in the universe.  Newton proposed that this force acted proportionally to the product of the mass of the bodies and inversely proportionally to the square of the distance between them.  This theory was hailed as a great achievement; Newton was knighted and at his death buried with honors in Westminster Abbey.  To this day our children are taught about the gravitational force, the way it works, and how to predict and analyze movement with Newton’s mathematics.  As physics progressed, other forces have been discovered and added to the list:  the strong nuclear force, the electromagnetic force, the weak nuclear force; all stronger than the gravitational force.

Along comes Albert Einstein in the last century and, like so much else that we were absolutely sure of, completely blows up the subject.  According to Einstein, there is no such thing as the gravitational force.  Mass distorts or warps the space time continuum.  As object travel along their world lines in the space time continuum of our universe, the world lines themselves are curved by the warping effects of mass in the space time continuum.  So gravity, as a force, does not really exist.  Newton’s laws are useful for describing how bodies move – at less than relativistic speeds – but gravity, per se, has been removed as a physical force and is now just a general term that describes the warpage of space time.

This is not a subject that is frequently taught in high school science classes.

And let’s not even get started talking about the nature of time.  My head is already hurting. “ In my head are many facts/That, as a student, I have studied to procure/In my head are many facts/Of which I wish I was more certain”

Science, it seems to me, is an ever evolving body of knowledge and our attempt to organize and understand it.  Science is not static and unchanging.  We know more today than we did yesterday, and thank goodness for that.  Our understanding of the nature of the universe is more profound than that of scientists in former days.  Science, it seems to me, is full of discussion and debate as we try to revise our thinking to accommodate the new information constantly streaming in.

Science, it seems, is never ‘settled’.  I certainly wouldn’t believe anyone that says it is.

To finish our song:

There are times I almost think
Nobody sure of what he absolutely know
Everybody find confusion
In conclusion, he concluded long ago

And it puzzle me to learn
That tho’ a man may be in doubt of what he know
Very quickly he will fight
He’ll fight to prove that what he does not know is so

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Test Like You Fly

 

IMG_1579

Convair 990 used for Space Shuttle Tire Testing

The retired aircraft that is serving as a sign for the Mojave airport deserves some notice. It was absolutely critical to the safe landing of the space shuttle. Here is why.

No other aircraft put as much stress on the tires, brakes, and landing gear as the space shuttle did. Only the Concorde came close, touching down at about the same speed and weight. But the Concorde had four tires on each main gear truck as opposed to the space shuttle’s two so the load on each tire was much less.

In the early design of the space shuttle, the landing weight was calculated to be about 150,000 lbs. and the landing gear designed accordingly. In actual practice, due to weight growth and other factors, the shuttle rarely weighed in at less than 200,000 lbs. at landing. When returning with a payload – say a SpaceHab or SpaceLab – the weight could be considerably more. Maximum normal landing weight could be up to 230,000 lbs. In an abort landing, we were prepared to touch down at 258,000 lbs. All this on the same gear that was designed for 150,000 lbs.

Just to make it more fun, the ‘derotation’ of lowering the nose to touch down on the nose wheel tires caused even more loading. Rolling on all tires on the runway, the shuttle is 5 degrees or so nose down. At the instant of nose gear touchdown, the downward pressure on the main tires is increased by the aerodynamic forces pushing down on the top of the wing.

Speed is critical to tire performance; at speeds over 225 kts, a kind of reverse curvature in the rubber tire sets in that can quickly heat the tire to failure. Normal landing speed for the shuttle was targeted at 195 kts but for some heavyweight flights, the big glider had to touch down at 205 kts. With piloting variations, some landings approached the critical 225 kts touchdown speed.

Runway surface can make a difference; desert runways like Edwards are smooth but runways in wetter climates are grooved to shed rainwater quickly. The shuttle landing facility at KSC had groves and we found that landing there chewed up the tires.

And sideways forces from a crosswind at landing could cause even more damage to the tires.

In fact, for all the early landings, the post landing inspection of the tires showed more damage that we expected. More damage than we were comfortable with. Consternation over the tire and brake situation resulting in tests, redesigns, improvements to the tires, the brakes, and the runway surfaces.

We used several main tools in testing the shuttle tires to these extreme conditions they would experience during landing. First, the big tire dynamometers at Wright-Pat AFB in Dayton Ohio. Tires and wheels were pressed hard onto bug drums of steel spinning to simulate touchdown speeds. These dynamometers gave great data. But they didn’t do side forces and since the drums are curved, the effects were not quite like real flight.

DSC_0028 Cmp

SSP Management inspects tire test equipment at Wright-Patterson AFB

Second, we used the test track at Langley Research Facility. A big carriage with the main gear tire was propelled to high speed and ‘touched down’ on a section of track a quarter mile long that had the surface – grooved or smooth – that was of interest. A great improvement; but it lacked the full rollout length and was limited again in side forces.

Analysis and these partial mode tests revealed a lot but the real landings were still incurring more damage than we predicted. So finally it was decided to actually fly the tires.

A Convair 990 transport was converted with an armored bay that could carry a shuttle main gear truck and one or two tires. We could land at high speed, hydraulically force the tire onto the runway with as much force as required, sideslip or take crosswind to well documented levels, and see what happened. Many many runs reviled the data was needed. Final adjustments were made to the tire manufacturing; improvements to the brakes; changes to the runway surface; and most importantly, limits on speed, crosswind, and weight were all confirmed using real flight data.

IMG_1580

Armored bay in Convair 990 where shuttle landing gear was tested

In space flight, it is almost impossible to test ‘combined environments’. We get one or two dimensions. Analysis has made great strides and computer models can inform engineering decisions greatly. But when complete accuracy is really important, the only real test is a flight test. No matter how much it costs.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Remembrance is Not Enough

“Do good work” – Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom

This January 30 has been designated ‘Remembrance Day’ in honor of the astronauts who lost their lives in the Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia accidents.

 
It is altogether fitting that we remember their dedication, bravery, and sacrifice.
But it is not enough to partake of fuzzy emotional sentiments about loss; nor is should our remembrance day devolve into a contest of ‘I remember exactly where I was when I heard’ stories.

 
For those of us engaged in pushing back the space frontier it means we must work to learn something from those accidents; lessons which will keep us from adding a future catastrophe to the list for some remembrance days to come.

 
So I ask you: what did you learn?

 
How about this: Pure oxygen atmosphere in a space craft may be necessary but the entire process should be approached cautiously; ignition sources must be eliminated by design and workmanship and flammable materials must be minimized if not completely eliminated.

 
So there is that. What about other lessons?

 
Attempting to fly space systems outside their design and tested environment (e.g. cold temperatures) is not allowable. Systems should be qualified by test as well as analysis for temperature extremes and never operated outside those bounds.

 
Do you have another lesson?

 
Re-entry heat shield integrity should be established in orbit by direct inspection. Repair material and techniques should be available if damage is detection. In design, all efforts should be made to protect re-entry heat shields from debris impacts which could cause damage.

 
Does that cover the entire spectrum of lessons?

 
Not hardly. I can think of at least one more.

 
In each of the accidents there were people who believed that the programs were proceeding into unsafe territory. These people tried with varying degrees of success to alert the management of their concerns. In some cases, they fell silent quickly. In other cases, they were overruled and gave up. Later, in all three of the accidents, the top leaders unanimously said ‘we didn’t know anybody was concerned’.

 
The lesson to take away here is not to give up. If it is unsafe say so. If overruled, appeal. If denied appeal, make your case to the highest level manager you can find. Do not give up until you have been heard at the very top.

 
Because you might be the only one that sees what no one else can.

 
Don’t live with regret.

Posted in Uncategorized | 36 Comments

Messy Accidents

Messy Failure

“…the messy interior of engineering practice, which after the accident investigation looks like ‘an accident waiting to happen’ is nothing more than ‘normal technology.’ Normal technology…is unruly.”
– Dr. Diane Vaughn “Challenger Launch Decision” (Chapter 6: Engineering Culture)

I just read a very interesting article that you should also read:
“Launch failures: the Predictables” by Wayne Eleazer Monday, December 14, 2015 http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2884/1

 
However, I think we need to examine the subject with a little more rigor.
It seems to me to be a little too glib to say that people make mistakes because they get in a hurry (launch pressure) and ignore information.

 

That seems awfully shallow in a complex real world. And misleading – because you can begin to think that you are smarter than those folks who got in a hurry and made that mistake. I would never make such a mistake.

 
That was certainly the mode that many of us at NASA were in after the Challenger accident. After all, an incredibly stupid middle manager let launch pressure force him into making a dumb decision that cost the lives of seven astronauts. Right?

 
Well, er, no. You need to read Dr. Vaughn’s book. It’s a little more complex than that.

 
If you settle for a simple, easy cause for an accident, you might just miss an important lesson that – if learned early enough – just might help you keep from making the same mistake later in life.

 
“Most accidents originate in actions committed by reasonable, rational individuals who were acting to achieve an assigned task in what they perceived to be a responsible and professional manner.
— Peter Harle, Director of Accident Prevention, Transportation Safety Board of Canada and former RCAF pilot, ‘Investigation of human factors: The link to accident prevention.’ In Johnston, N., McDonald, N., & Fuller, R. (Eds.), Aviation Psychology in Practice, 1994

 

 

After Challenger, almost all of us at NASA failed to learn the complex, rich, and ultimately effective lessons there because we accepted the glib, easy answer that all we had to do was avoid ‘launch fever’ and keep those middle managers from doing the same.

 

A necessary step for flight safety but hardly a sufficient method to avoid future mistakes.

 
Doing an accident investigation, I have been told, involves asking “why?” seven times. Such and such happened. Why? Because somebody did so and so. Why? Because they were trained wrong. Why? Because nobody thought that could happen. Why?

 
You get the picture. If you want to find a root cause for an accident you have to go deep. If you want to keep from having an accident, it follows, you must go equally deep.

 
The problem with most engineering projects – particularly complex, highly coupled, high performance, extreme environment engineering projects –is that there are too many issues to deal with. A great leader will organize the team to look at all the possible problems, issues and triage them into what needs the most attention. There is never enough resource (time, people, money) to get to the depths on all the issues that are out there. By their very nature, complex problems require priority setting and resource allocation.

 
“Absolute certainty can never be attained for many reasons, one of them being that even without limits on time and other resources, engineers can never be sure they have foreseen all possible contingencies, asked and answered every question, played out every scenario.” – Dr. Diane Vaughn
 

In the months leading up to the Columbia accident, the Space Shuttle program staff – engineers, safety specialists, managers, operators – worked through more than two dozen potentially fatal issues; some arising from inflight anomalies, some arising from new technical analysis or ground test. All major issues. Worked hard. Delayed flights to solve them. Put in place new equipment, new procedures, and new safety checks to ensure that the probability of success was maximized.

 
Nothing was ignored. Nothing. Nothing. Not even the foam.

 
But issues were evaluated, ranked, and resources applied as it was felt appropriate.

 
Nothing was ignored. But some things were mis-evaluated.

 
“Judgments are always made under conditions of imperfect knowledge” – Dr. Diane Vaughn

 

 

In High Reliability Organization Theory, one of the postulates is “a reluctance to simplify interpretations”. This makes sense. The deeper an understanding of a subject, the more likely it is that a proper judgement can be made.

 
One of the leading causes of the Columbia accident is clearly the simplification of one issue that led to a mis-categorization.

 
In a larger sense, having a simplistic understanding of how accidents occur in complex engineering systems will prevent learning and lead to a continuation of the accidents.

 
A really stupid organization is one that ignores critical issues. Those organizations are not in business very long. A smarter, but still accident prone organization, addresses critical issues but improperly. A truly smart organization addresses all issues with the best possible judgement applied. A successful organization is very smart and always worried that something has been missed – or improperly evaluated. “Preoccupied with Failure” is the term.

 

Or you can just remember to think “I’m not as smart as I think I am.”  Properly applied, that can work too.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

The Ancient and Honorables

Friday was a busy day for me and I was off comm most of the day with meetings and whatnot. At the end of the day, I hustled over to the Saturn V barn at JSC to help with a tour of JSC co-ops. It was a good thing to do.

Then, at 5:30, the new class of Flight Directors sponsored a gathering of the Ancient and Honorable Society of Flight Directors at Space Center Houston. It was a wonderful event. Most of the society made it. Chris Kraft, Glynn Lunney, Chuck Lewis were the elder statesmen. Many true and almost true stories from the MCC were exchanged as the new Flight Directors were initiated into the team. As the evening wore on, we settled into a circle around the most venerable members. We heard many stories of the early days at the remote site locations around the world. Most of the stories are unrepeatable. Some of them were even about space flight.

At the end of the evening, when the SCH cleaning crew through us out about 2 hours past when we were scheduled to leave, the last story was from Dr. Kraft. How they found out that the LM would not be ready for checkout on Apollo 8. How the team came up with bold idea to orbit the moon instead. How Gilruth and Kraft sold the idea to a skeptical assembly of General Phillips, George Mueller, Wehner Von Braun. How the mission transformed the entire program, the entire race to the moon. A bold gamble that paid off.

Only after I left the gathering, and turned on the car radio, did I learn the awful news from Paris. Somehow that contrast with the final story brought to my mind the essay that the Poet Laureate of the United States wrote back in December of 1968. About Apollo 8. And how this story is profoundly appropriate:

Riders on Earth Together, Brothers in Eternal Cold
By ARCHIBALD MACLEISH
December 25, 1968
Men’s conception of themselves and of each other has always depended on their notion of the earth. When the earth was the World — all the world there was — and the stars were lights in Dante’s heaven, and the ground beneath men’s feet roofed Hell, they saw themselves as creatures at the center of the universe, the sole, particular concern of God — and from that high place they ruled and killed and conquered as they pleased.
And when, centuries later, the earth was no longer the World but a small, wet spinning planet in the solar system of a minor star off at the edge of an inconsiderable galaxy in the immeasurable distances of space — when Dante’s heaven had disappeared and there was no Hell (at least no Hell beneath the feet) — men began to see themselves not as God-directed actors at the center of a noble drama, but as helpless victims of a senseless farce where all the rest were helpless victims also and millions could be killed in world-wide wars or in blasted cities or in concentration camps without a thought or reason but the reason — if we call it one — of force.
Now, in the last few hours, the notion may have changed again. For the first time in all of time men have seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depth of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small as even Dante — that “first imagination of Christendom” — had never dreamed of seeing it; as the Twentieth Century philosophers of absurdity and despair were incapable of guessing that it might be seen. And seeing it so, one question came to the minds of those who looked at it. “Is it inhabited?” they said to each other and laughed — and then they did not laugh. What came to their minds a hundred thousand miles and more into space — “half way to the moon” they put it — what came to their minds was the life on that little, lonely, floating planet; that tiny raft in the enormous, empty night. “Is it inhabited?”
The medieval notion of the earth put man at the center of everything. The nuclear notion of the earth put him nowhere — beyond the range of reason even — lost in absurdity and war. This latest notion may have other consequences. Formed as it was in the minds of heroic voyagers who were also men, it may remake our image of mankind. No longer that preposterous figure at the center, no longer that degraded and degrading victim off at the margins of reality and blind with blood, man may at last become himself.
To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers. apollo-8-earth-rise-8

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments