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Prescription for disaster.


"Here is policy made tangible," MalcolmMcConnell writes on viewing the wreckage of the space shuttle Challenger, laid out on the floor of a giant hangar at Cape Canaveral. "Actually touching the cool, twisted shards of aluminum, the skeins of shredded computer cable, the chalky surface of Challenger's shattered tiles, is a powerfully evocative experience. Here among the debris one is forced to recognize that political compromise, bureaucratic deception, and corporate duplicity all have consequences."

So too does journalistic complaisance. In mostrespects the "power of the press" is exaggerated. But as regards NASA it is quite real. The press, especially television, is a primary constituent of the space program--a player whose wishes and whims are taken into account and one which, like any other vested interest group, has an incentive to refuse to see what is going wrong under its nose.

How else can it be that in this age of over-staffednews rooms, two uncelebrated writers have come up with page after page of material missed by the networks and major newspapers about the most conspicuous story of the year? That's what McConnell, with Challenger: A Major Malfunction, and Joseph Trento, with Prescription for Disaster, have accomplished. These two fascinating books are significant not only for what they disclose but for what those disclosures demonstrate--how poorly the big-deal media have covered NASA's institutional decline. The Challenger tragedy didn't come out of nowhere--there were repeated danger signs clear to any reporter willing to look beneath the PR gloss.

Screams of agony

Here's a shuttle scorecard. The shuttle has beenturned on 27 times. Those 27 ignitions resulted in 24 completed missions, two aborts on the pad, and one destruction. Both ground aborts came within a few seconds of solid-rocket booster (SRB) ignition, which, had it occurred, would also have destroyed the shuttles: one ground abort set fire to the pad. There has been one main engine failure in flight; on that occasion only a brilliant bit of quick thinking by a NASA control room operator prevented a second engine from shutting down, which probably would have resulted in the loss of that crew. On other completed missions there has been one near burn-through of an SRB motor nozzle, one failure of an O-ring (the backup held), one fuel leak in the main engines, and about ten cases total of O-ring damage.

In other words something has gone seriouslywrong on more than half the shuttles' ignitions. And in addition to Challenger, calamity has struck almost six times.

Trento reminds us of Thomas Baron, the NorthAmerican Rockwell safety inspector who in 1967 went public with his warning that the pure-oxygen interior of the Apollo command module was unsafe. Baron was fired; 20 days later three astronauts died when the interior of their Apollo command module caught fire, deaths that were, until Challenger, the U.S. space program's only direct fatalities. I watched in vain for mention of Baron when Allan McDonald and Roger Boisjoly, the Morton Thiokol engineers who tried to block the Challenger launch, were screwed as their reward: an event depicted in a surprising number of new accounts as an isolated incident.

Trento further reminds us that following theApollo fire, NASA declared the astronauts had died instantly, when in fact their bodies were found pressed up against the hatch and "hundreds of people heard the screams of agony over an open circuit that was preserved on tape." Only after extensive prodding did NASA admit that the Challenger crew had not perished instantly either, as initially claimed, but survived the explosion and probably lived until their cabin hit the ocean. Such grisly particulars have no bearing on policy, but do tell a great deal about NASA's institutional character, and its willingness to deceive the public.

Of the two, A Major Malfunction is thesuperior book. McConnell, who has spent the past three years covering space for Reader's Digest, writes well; his chapters on the days leading up to the doomed launch flow like a novel, yet do not sacrifice substance. Trento, a correspondent with CNN, is the more dogged reporter, having interviewed many former top NASA officials. But in the manner of a bad New Yorker article, Trento's book piles on paragraph after paragraph of seemingly irrelevant facts and quotations, which the reader slogs through assuming he will eventually be shown why all the extrania are there--only to realize after the book concludes that, nope, they were just superfluous nits and unedited verbosity.

Readers must sift Prescription for Disaster tofind the telling nuggets of information. For instance, we learn that in 1983, when Sally Ride became the first American woman in orbit, Nancy Reagan flipped out because Jane Fonda was present for the launch. Michael Deaver, then at the White House, called NASA Administrator James Beggs on the carpet. When Beggs explained that civilian launches are open to the public, Deaver demanded that the NASA "flak" man who had invited Fonda to sit in the VIP section be fired.

Beggs, NASA administrator from the beginningof the Reagan administration until two months before the Challenger disaster, has been all but forgotten in most accounts of the tragedy, because he was not in charge on the day the explosion occurred. Neither McConnell nor Trento make this superficial mistake, for the agency which sent Challenger to its fate is a perfect reflection of Beggs's persona--rigid, remote, concerned first and foremost with budget politics.

Prescription for Disaster explains that untilBeggs, managers of NASA's research and operation centers such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the Johnson Space Center in Texas, and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, reported directly to the adminstrator in Washington. Beggs changed the system so that the center directors reported to his deputy, who then reported to Beggs. Experience has shown that this formula is 100 percent guaranteed to prevent disagreeable news from reaching the desk of the boss--which it did in the case of growing concern over the reliability of the shuttle's solid-rocket boosters.

This procedural change became a double fiascoin 1985 when that warm, wonderful human being, Donald Regan, insisted Beggs accept William Graham as his deputy. Graham, a nuclear-weapons specialist, had no experience in space issues or in management; his primary qualification was connections with the fruitcake wing of Ronald Reagan's California crowd. In November 1985, Beggs was indicted on charges of procurement fraud involving his previous job as an executive of that warm, wonderful corporation, General Dynamics. Beggs took a leave of absence, making Graham acting NASA administrator. Graham was holding the reins when Challenger exploded.

Trento relates that Beggs, during his administration,devoted great time and effort to pressing Congress to fund Centaur, a General Dynamics-built booster stage, as an addition to the shuttle program. Centaur represented perhaps a billion dollars in new business for Beggs's former employer. For technical reasons, Centaur also was considered an intemperate safety risk, and was widely opposed by engineers and by the astronaut corps. Promptly after Beggs resigned as NASA head, Centaur was canceled.

Beggs was the motivating force behind thespace station. He campaigned for a large, continuously manned station throughout the first term of the Reagan administration, ultimately winning Reagan's approval in 1984. Beggs cleared the decks for this megabucks project by halting work on a relatively inexpensive effort to modify one shuttle so it could stay in space a month with the existing Spacelab mini-station in its payload bay. This could have accomplished about 99 percent of what a continuously manned space station could accomplish at about 1 percent of cost. Had it not been for his troubled departure, the space station would have made the perfect legacy for Beggs--putting into the pipeline a new multibillion-dollar subsidy program for aerospace contractors.

Casablanca winds

Both Major Malfunction and Prescription forDisaster offer important new insights into the days leading up to the Challenger launch. Combining them with facts from the Rogers Commission report and other sources, this picture emerges:

Early January 1986. Six attempts are requiredto launch the shuttle Columbia on a space junket with Rep. Bill Nelson aboard. Each scrub (a launch attempt that gets as far as boarding the crew) costs about $500,000. Nelson's flight is the first shuttle mission under William Graham. During the January 6 countdown, computers declare a scrub at T minus 31 seconds. Later it turns out that Columbia's fuel tank contains nowhere near enough propellant to get the craft into space, some 18,000 pounds of liquid oxygen having been drained off by operator error. A blunder of this magnitude, undetected until seconds remained--and then only by the machines, not the dozens of senior managers in mission control--should have shocked NASA to its soul. Instead NASA laughed it off; Graham took no action. The incident is barely mentioned in press reports. Many reports do, however, make sport of the missed launch dates.

Late January 1986. Launch of Challenger isscheduled for Sunday, January 26--the same day as the Superbowl. It will be teacher Christa McAuliffe's flight. Graham takes far more interest in the Cape Canaveral guest list than in investigating the January 6 snafu; he goes over the list personally, scratching out names of liberals. Vice President George Bush announces he will attend the liftoff, looking forward to the free publicity as networks cut away from the year's number-one television audience to Bush waving as McAuliffe blasts heavenward. On Saturday the 24th, the Sunday weather forecast notes a chance of poor conditions. Graham, for unclear reasons, personally orders the launch postponed till Monday. Sunday's weather turns out to be ideal. Bush is said to be furious; he informs Graham he will no longer attend. In his first forceful action as agency head, Graham appears the fool.

Monday, January 27. Technicians have troubleconfirming that Challenger's crew hatch is sealed. Television cameras record numerous ministrations to the hatch, including the arrival of a van carrying a standard Black and Decker handyman's drill, which turns out not to work. By the time the hatch problem is solved, wind conditions have deteriorated. At 12:36 p.m. the launch is called off. Because the scrub occurs in the afternoon, it is perfectly timed for network broadcasts which begin at 6:30 p.m. eastern time. That evening the postponement is mocked by both CBS and ABC--as their lead stories, no less.

The next day, Tuesday the 28th, will bring theState of the Union address. Reagan is expected to stress education as a central theme. (Whether he would have done this will never be known; following the Challenger explosion the original speech was canceled.) The teacher-in-space program was originally created to deflect criticism that Reagan was not doing enough about education. No phone calls from the White House are needed to remind NASA of the brownie points that will be scored if Reagan can talk about McAuliffe during the speech.

NASA officials opt to "press on"--a crashschedule of attempting the launch again the next day, though this means laboriously emptying and refilling the cryogenic tank, and though the weather forecast now calls for unusual cold.

Monday night. McDonald, Boisjoly, and otherengineers at Morton Thiokol, maker of the solid-rocket boosters, begin a protracted attempt to persuade NASA to postpone the launch. The forecast calls for overnight temperatures in the twenties. On the previous coldest shuttle launch, staged at 53 degrees, the O-rings that seal the spaces between segments of the SRBs nearly gave out. In addition, one of the two O-rings has failed in flight before, and four of the five previous shuttle flights experienced some measure of O-ring problems. Two teleconferences lasting well into the evening are held with NASA officials. Lawrence Mulloy, SRB project director at the Marshall Center, utters the now-infamous phrase: "My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?"

Like their engineers, Thiokol executives are alsonervous, but for different reasons. The company has enjoyed a sole-source monopoly over SRB production since the shuttle program began. But just one month before, in December 1985, NASA announced under congressional pressure that it might split-source future SRB purchases. How would it look if Thiokol called its own product unsafe? Marshall officials press the company on whether it is willing formally to declare exactly that. Thiokol is not. Then, in a singular twist, they insist that Thiokol sign and telefax to NASA a statement that the company does not object to the launch. Thiokol complies.

Marshall is Thiokol's "client." Most of thecompany's dealings are with it, not NASA headquarters, and so it is Marshall's wrath that Thiokol fears. Marshall's director, William Lucas, has a reputation as the weakest link in the NASA chain. Autocratic and closed-minded, he is known for two qualities--brooking only fawning subordinates, and insisting that Marshall never be blamed for launch delays. If there is bad news to be told to headquarters, Lucas will not be the one to tell it. During the attempted Columbia launches earlier that month, the Marshall Center had been forced to vote in favor of a postponement. Lucas was said to be steaming.

After hearing about the teleconferences,Mulloy reports in to headquarters. He says nothing of the Thiokol engineers' protests. Technically, he does not have to. Mulloy is required only to note whether the parts of the shuttle under his control will meet the formal launch-commit criteria, and those criteria say nothing about temperatures before launch--they say that the temperature must be above freezing when flight begins. Whether cold makes a launch dangerous in general is a decision for "Level I," Graham and the senior management at Kennedy Space Center. This group never gets the word about the SRB concerns. Instead of telling him, Mulloy conveys the Thiokol protest to Lucas--a decision General Donald Kutyna, a Rogers Commission member, would later characterize as "reporting a fire to the mayor." When Lucas checks in with Level I a few hours before the launch, he too says nothing.

Shortly after midnight Tuesday morning. "Tanking"of the supercooled propellants begins. During launch, a system of giant hoses douses the pad with water to prevent fires and dampen some of the vibrations that otherwise might damage the shuttle: in order to keep this and other plumbing systems from freezing, a decision is made to keep water running in them throughout the night. As a result, by sunrise the launch pad is bedecked with giant icicles--looking like "something out of Dr. Zhivago," one technician comments over the com line. Rockwell, which builds the orbiter (the airplane-like part), worries that when the tower is shaken by the forces of liftoff, these icicles will break free and crash into the shuttle's delicate thermal tiles. Rockwell engineers begin pressuring their bosses to stop the launch. (Because the shuttle exploded, it will never be known if ice damage to the tiles took place.)

Another weather complication ensues: morehigh winds. Gusts are reported in the shuttle's launch arc. Downrange, where two ships wait to recover the spent SRBs, seas are heavy. During the night the ships had been forced by 30-foot swells to withdraw from the recovery site. Stiff winds blow across the shuttle at a perpendicular angle, such that condensate from the cryogenic tank swirls around one SRB but not the other, reducing to 8 degrees the exterior temperature near the joint that will eventually fail.

Over the years NASA had come to adopt acan-do attitude about weather. Apollo 12, launched through a thunderhead, was struck by lightning twice during ascent; miraculously, the rocket continued to function normally. A fiercely powerful spaceship, capable of defying gravity and surviving in the absolute zero of space--what did it have to fear from a little wind and nippy weather? Acting Administrator Graham isn't available to assess the situation. On the morning of January 28, Graham is on Capitol Hill, in the office of Rep. Manuel Lujan, lobbying him about NASA appropriations. Before entering the spacecraft, astronaut Ellison Onizuka jokes with the hatch technician about his face being shown on CBS News the night before. At 11:38 Tuesday morning, Challenger's engines begin to fire.

Ignition. The mission is the coldest launch onrecord, and also (somehow, a neglected fact) carries the heaviest payload attempted (48,000 pounds, still considerably below the 65,000 pounds the shuttle is supposed to be able to handle). At liftoff a puff of smoke appears near a joint on the right SRB. The O-rings have failed. Then the smoke stops. It it believed that after the pressure wave of ignition passed, the joint managed to regain its seal. The shuttle rises normally. After about 40 seconds of flight the main engines are throttled down in anticipation of "Max Q," the moment of peak aerodynamic stress. Then Challenger passes through a wind shear. The damaged joint ceases to hold. Flame appears on the right SRB, followed by an explosion.

One year later. Morton Thiokol's sole-sourcemonopoly on the SRB remains intact. In retrospect the company's worry about the contract seems hilarious, for even after its product fails in full view of the world, Congress remains, as always, incapable of contesting an entrenched spending program. Several NASA managers have retired, but not one has been disciplined. Three billion dollars have been allocated for another shuttle, even as new plans are drawn to hardly use shuttles at all. NASA's future budget levels have been increased substantially by the Reagan administration, teaching again the lesson that in government bureaucracy, nothing succeeds like failure.

The press, once too busy cheerleading to detectthe omens of tragedy at NASA, has for the most part resumed waving pom-poms. With the notable exceptions of The New York Times, whose William Broad, Stuart Diamond, and David Sanger have broken several important stories, Mike Thomas, Tim Smart, and James Fisher of The Orlando Sentinel, and the Knight-Ridder newspapers, whose Mark Thompson is frequently ahead of the pack, most reporting of the aftermath has been remarkably timid and shallow. Recent pieces in several major news outlets have boiled down to "Golly gosh, how will NASA be sure it gets a dramatic budget increase?"

Too Ambitious

Network newscasts the night before Challengerexploded provide a clue to the mentality at work. Dan Rather began CBS News by declaring: "Yet another costly, red-faces-all-around space shuttle launch delay." Peter Jennings began ABC with these words: "Once again a flawless liftoff proved too much of a challenge for Challenger." (Rather, that biased liberal, has been widely excoriated for his remark. The phrase chosen by Jennings, who with his aristocratic inflection is regarded as the right's favorite anchor, was considerably more sarcastic.) Why should a brief postponement of an allegedly routine event merit treatment as the lead story on two network newscasts? Because as far as the networks were concerned, the purpose of the space program was to produce pretty pictures for them to broadcast.

Television was keeping up its end of thebargain, providing only gee-whiz coverage. By failing to provide pictures, NASA had defaulted its portion of the compact, and that justified a little sneering. It's not too cynical to say this--NASA encouraged the "special relationship" attitude, more than happy to feed the media in return for lenient scrutiny. Reporters covering the Washington bureaucracy often write about turf battles and pork barrel, yet never seem to raise these issues when it comes to NASA. That's because agencies like the General Services Administration do not produce dramatic footage, human interest stories, or trips to watch exciting launches and landings.

A related factor is that delays are the one aspectof space most reporters feel comfortable criticizing. Delays are an open and shut case; no one can argue they ought to happen, and detecting their occurrence requires no subtle understanding of technical issues. So reporters compensate for their gushing over anything that flies by snarling when the schedule slips.

Of all the questions concerning the U.S. spaceprogram, delays are surely the least significant. Who cares if a shuttle launch is late? Safety and cost-effectiveness are infinitely more important than timing. Rather and Jennings might as easily have begun their broadcasts, "Putting safety ahead of public relations, NASA took no chances with today's planned shuttle launch." In the aftermath of Challenger there have probably been five times more lines written about the fact that scheduled satellite deliveries and planetary probes will be delayed than on far more substantive issues, like why we are building another expensive shuttle which will operate with the same no-escape-possible booster system.

The one aspect of shuttle delays relevant topublic discourse is the extent to which they establish how improbable NASA's claims were that justified the shuttle in the first place. It is now common for reporters to assert that pressure on NASA to "fly out the manifest," or meet its satellite and space-probe delivery commitments, led to relaxed safety standards. That may be. But the 1986 manifest called for 11 flights. Congressional authorization for the shuttle program was premised on 50 annual flights. If the pressure of meeting 11 launch dates was so intense that it caused dangerous compromises, then the shuttle never made sense in the first place.

Today the question of whether the shuttlemakes sense has been dropped entirely, with reporters focusing on objections that the new plan calling for a maximum of 16 flights per year by the mid-nineties is "too ambitious." Probably it is, in the sense that the shuttle is a very complicated machine attempting to do what is at the moment technologically impossible--repeatedly fly to space without falling apart. But if a handful of annual launches has become too ambitious, why are we sinking money into another shuttle?

Similarly, many have argued that Challengerblew up because NASA was too concerned with cost-cutting. It's true the agency was doing everything in its power to hold down costs. For example, the men fumbling with the hatch were technicians hired by Lockheed on a shuttle services contract. Previously that role was filled by engineers employed by NASA, but licensed civil engineers with civil service tenure cost more than private-sector technicians. Once again, if 1986 cost-cutting rendered the program too risky, then shuttles make no sense--because even at the 1986 rates, the true cost of launching payload was several times the cost of using expendable rockets.

Secret joys

Both A Major Malfunction and Prescriptionfor Disaster go into detail regarding how the original flight-rate and flight-cost predictions were manipulated by James Fletcher--NASA administrator in the seventies when the shuttle was being designed and funded and brought back to be administrator last winter--in order to paint an impossibly rosy picture. The tale is too involved to recount here; the question raised is, with Fletcher back, what new phony claims are being made to lasso more money?

McConnell admits he was spellbound byNASA. "Shuttle flights were thrilling to observe," he writes. "The press began to see itself as participants in the adventure...[although] you always felt vaguely managed, especially when you stopped to consider that NASA ground rules forbade reporters from scheduling their own interviews with the actual program people." McConnell clearly feels that because he failed to question NASA claims, he deserves a share of the blame for seven lost lives. This is a refreshing attitude, given that most journalists maintain that once their stories are written their hands are washed. McConnell does not speculate about what might have happened had he tried to get the material in A Major Malfunction into Reader's Digest before January 1986, when there was time to prevent the tragedy. Needless to say, Reader's Digest would not have run it.

Over the years I have wondered what accountsfor reporters' suspension of disbelief when it comes to NASA. Most likely it is not genuine enthusiasm for the scientific knowledge attained, though this is the best reason to support space exploration. I doubt many journalists really care that soil on Mars contains oxygen, that Jupiter's moons Europa and Ganymede have cores of liquid water, or similarly abstract information that may hold significance for the human race. And surely it can't be genuine affection for the people. There are some colorful characters in NASA, but not many. Most of the organization is para-corporate and obsessively conformist.

I think what it boils down to is that space isdefense minus the value judgments. Many reporters--even those biased liberals, and especially boys--secretly enjoy visiting military bases, standing next to awesome machines, and rubbing shoulders with the people who know how to use them. But since the purpose of defense machines is to combat, it is poor form to admit that such technology holds a strange fascination.

Now space, on the other hand, nobody'sagainst space. There is no moral dilemma with a civilian agency like NASA visiting the heavens for civilian purposes. So the childlike, adult-toy glee regarding technology (those master control rooms! what does it feel like to press the button?!) can be openly expressed. Men can let their boy sides run free; women who are interested in technology can indulge themselves without getting in trouble with the sisterhood. Meanwhile the dazzle factor, and the technical complications that flow from it, excuses the reporter from trying to explain or even figure out what's actually going on. The sheer drama of the event can be reported, the way a correspondent in a morally defensible war could report the drama of battle without having to raise questions about whether the battle should be occurring in the first place.

Likewise, for years I have wondered howNASA--which was right, sometimes majestically right, so many times in a row during the Apollo days--came to suspend its own disbelief regarding the shuttle. A Major Malfunction and Prescription for Disaster, in their depiction of NASA's many exercises in self-deception in order to win shuttle funding and preserve the agency's existence, make me think this is the answer:

NASA was created with an exemption fromcontemplating its own purpose. In the days following Sputnik, when the moon race was, for good or ill, a historically inevitable political phenomenon, high technology space machines were ends in themselves. NASA was expected to do three things: conceive high space technology, make it work, and assure the public that the expense was justified.

That formula served the agency throughApollo. But then, as the need for an all-out commitment to expensive manned flights declined, NASA was asked to change course--to plan a space project that made economic sense. This is something that, as an institution, the agency was unprepared to do. Instead NASA resorted to the formula that had worked for Apollo. The first step, of envisioning a grand leap in technology, once again went well. The second step, of making that technology work, went well for awhile, until some of the Pollyanna assumptions (mainly involving routine re-use) began to be exposed. The third step, of justifying the expense, proved impossible. So NASA lied. Once the agency had learned to lie, it was started down the road that ended on January 28, 1986.

Now the U.S. has embarked on two new pathsin space policy. One, which calls for continued use of shuttles well into the 21st century, will at best waste a lot of money, and at worst may lead to more lives lost attempting to achieve nominal goals like cargo launches. Its main value is to prevent staff cuts at NASA's vast manned-flight hierarchy.

The other path is the aerospace plane (whichReagan inexplicably calls the "Orient Express," apparently believing it will be practical for commercial transportation). So far $450 million has been handed out to contractors to start logs rolling for this new constituent spending program. In the early stages, aerospace plane designers appear to be gathering up all the shuttle mistakes and multiplying by two.

In theory the aerospace plane sounds great--amachine that takes off from a runway and ascends to orbit in one piece, basically an airplane that flies very high. Someday, such craft may ply the skies. For the moment the technical obstacles seem insurmountable. An aerospace plane would have to be powered by a hypothetical engine called a scramjet. Space shuttle designers took a huge risk by pushing the two engines types they employed to an output far greater than had previously been attempted. But at least there was considerable operating experience with solid boosters and cryogenic motors to call on. Building an aerospace plane will mean risking everything on a technology that has yet to leave the lab. And because the aerospace plane will do most of its accelerating within the atmosphere, its skin will be exposed for extended periods to higher temperatures than the space shuttle encounters briefly during reentry. Much of the vehicle would need to be covered with some as yet unspecified new form of super-advanced tiles that withstand great heat indefinitely.

Someday problems like this will be overcome. Butbuilding an aerospace plane in this century will probably be possible only by concentrating all the country's space resources on a handful of breathtakingly expensive manned vehicles and then gambling that nothing will ever go wrong with them. That's where we were in 1972, when the press and the Congress decided to believe in the space shuttle. That's where we are again today.
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Author:Easterbrook, Gregg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1987
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