Remembrance Day, Challenger & NewSpace

The space shuttle Challenger explodes. (Credit: NASA)
The space shuttle Challenger explodes. (Credit: NASA)

“There was ice on the ship,” I said quietly to no one in particular.

I was standing in the hallway at work with some co-workers, watching the space shuttle Challenger explode over and over again on a television in one of the offices.

The pride of the American space program suddenly disintegrating on a perfectly sunny day. The lives of seven brave astronauts snuffed out. It was shocking and horrifying and memorizing all at the same time — a billion dollar aerial car wreck I couldn’t take my eyes off.

I had no inside knowledge about what had just happened. I had never even heard of an O-ring. But, the reports of the extreme cold at the Cape that morning — and video of massive icicles hanging from the pad — were unusual. It left me wondering. Why had they launched in those conditions? Was the shuttle robust enough to fly in that kind of weather?

It turns out it wasn’t. The months that followed saw one awful revelation after another about poorly designed solid rocket boosters, growing problems with the O-ring seals, inadequate efforts to address the design flaw, and the increasingly willingness of NASA to accept the risks involved.

The most infuriating revelation was that on the night before the flight, Morton Thiokol engineers were begging the space agency not to fly in those conditions but NASA did it anyway.  Seven lives lost, and for what?

They say that there are five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. NASA’s recklessness with the lives of its astronauts that day left me very angry for a long time. What the hell were they thinking?

I believe the answer to that question has its roots in the early 1970’s when the space shuttle was approved.

NASA had promised the equivalent of a reusable space truck that could regularly fly into orbit. It would be the cosmic equivalent of the legendary DC-3 aircraft. The agency commissioned a study by a company called Mathematica that showed the shuttle fleet would fly 50 times per year at an extremely low cost.

Those estimates were wrong. The shuttle proved to be much more expensive to operate and take much longer to turn around between flights than anyone ever anticipated. The doomed Challenger flight was the shuttle program’s 24th flight in just under five years of operation.

By January 1986, NASA felt it has overcome the initial problems of flying a complex new launch system. Challenger was the second of 14 missions planned for 1986. By 1990, the space agency was projecting it would fly 24 missions — twice per month.

In retrospect, the plan was flat out impossible. But, NASA’s rhetoric had overtaken reality. The space agency was trying to deliver on what it had promised rather than what it could realistically do.

In other words, officials had started to believe their own bullshit. Once that happens, the culture became toxic and efforts to address serious problems faced serious obstacles.

“My God, Thiokol,” shuttle manager Lawrence Malloy excclaimed. “When do you want me to launch — next April?”

Schedule had become king. Safety had been demoted.

There is a haunting aspect of the Challenger tragedy: even if the Thiokol engineers had won the argument, and the crew had flown safely on another day, and the fixes had been made to the O-rings, NASA was  probably still heading for a major disaster.

The space agency’s planned flight rate would have pushed a still raw and immature technology too hard without enough funding and resources.  The shuttle had too many flaws in it. Sooner rather than later, another shuttle crew would have paid the price.

Even after a stand down of 2.5 years, and all the improvements and upgrades made to the shuttles after the Challenger accident, and a retreat to an achievable flight rate, NASA still lost Columbia and its seven astronauts in 2003 due to damage caused by another known issue — foam shedding from the external tank.

As NASA marks Remembrance Day, its incumbent upon us to mourn not only the brave astronauts we lost on Challenger, Columbia and Apollo 1 but to understand why we lost them. NASA’s failures — and yes, its many successes — hold many valuable lessons that must be applied to our current efforts.

This is particularly true for the private NewSpace community now working on space tourism vehicles. Nowhere in the space industry is the gap between rhetoric and reality — between promises and deliverables — wider than in this segment of the industry.

In some quarters of NewSpace, there’s a real disdain for NASA. The space agency is seen as a hide-bound bureaucracy that has killed astronauts needlessly. It is bogged down with unnecessary rules that increase costs to absurd levels while doing to improve safety, people argue. The thinking is that NASA has little or nothing positive to teach the commercial industry.

I believe this is dangerous mindset. It’s based on the assumption that private companies will avoid the kinds of schedule and budget pressures that contributed to NASA’s failures. There’s a belief that market forces — the fear that an accident would put a company out of business — will keep excessive risk taking in check.

I have my doubts. Humans are fallible. Organizations are prone to group think. Profit motive can override safety concerns. And spaceflight is inherently dangerous.

In any event, NewSpace has a long way to go before it can prove its superiority to NASA, The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding. And NewSpace has produced very little of it.

After a brief spurt of activity in 2004 in which there were three successful suborbital flights, the industry has not flown another human in space in more than 11 years. (I’m not counting orbital Soyuz flights, which are government missions with non-professional astronauts aboard.)

The U.S. government has launched humans into space 179 times. NASA flew 166 missions, with the first two being suborbital. The X-15 program had 13 suborbital flights if we use the U.S. Air Force’s 50-mile boundary of space. (Two X-15 flights exceeded the internationally recognized 62-mile boundary.)

Three of those mission ended with the loss of the vehicle and crew: Challenger, Columbia and one X-15. A total of 15 people died in flight, with the three-man crew of Apollo 1 dying in a ground fire.

To date, NewSpace has had three suborbital flights that carried three pilots. One pilot died on another flight that was not intended to reach space. And three engineers died in a test stand explosion.

NewSpace has a lot to prove. That alone should keep the industry humble. As we mark Remembrance Day, we must also keep in mind that we are all fallible. And that we are all mortal.