“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.