Thursday, February 2, 2023

NASA's (and Our) Worst Week in Spaceflight - An Annual Repost

It's an oddity of US Space travel that every mission that ended in loss of crew and vehicle occurred during one calendar week, although those accidents span 36 years. We've just concluded the end of that week, January 27th through February 1st; 1967 through 2003.  

January 27, 1967 was the hellish demise of Apollo 1 and her crew, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White, during a pad test, not a flight.  In that article, Ars Technica interviews key men associated with the mission and provides, for the first time I've seen, the audio of the test (which I'm unable to listen to now - either gone or a problem with their link).  In the intervening years, I've heard speculation that we never would have made it to the moon without something to shake out a bit of the NASA management idiocy, but that may just be people logically justifying their opinions.  Like this quote from Chris Kraft, one of the giants of NASA in the '60s. 

There was plenty of blame to go around—for North American [built the Apollo capsule - SiG], for flight control in Houston, for technicians at Cape Canaveral, for Washington DC and its political pressure on the schedule and its increasingly bureaucratic approach to spaceflight. The reality is that the spacecraft was not flyable. It had too many faults. Had the Apollo 1 fire not occurred, it’s likely that additional problems would have delayed the launch.

“Unless the fire had happened, I think it’s very doubtful that we would have ever landed on the Moon,” Kraft said. “And I know damned well we wouldn’t have gotten there during the 1960s. There were just too many things wrong. Too many management problems, too many people problems, and too many hardware problems across the whole program.” 

The next big disaster was January 28, - the next day on the calendar, but in 1986, 19 years later.  Space Shuttle Challenger was lost a mere 73 seconds into mission 51-L as a flaw in the starboard solid rocket booster allowed a secondary flame to burn through supports and cause the external tank to explode.  It was the kind of cold day that we haven't had here in some years.  It has been reported that it was between 20 and 26 around the area on the morning of the launch and ice had been reported on the launch tower as well as the external tank.  O-rings that were used to seal the segments of the stackable solid rocket boosters were too cold to seal.  Launch wasn't until nearly noon and it had warmed somewhat, but the shuttle had never been launched at temperatures below 40 before that mission.  Richard Feynman famously demonstrated that cold was likely the cause during the televised Rogers Commission meetings, dropping a section of O ring compressed by a C-clamp into his iced water to demonstrate that it had lost its resilience at that temperature.  The vehicle would have been colder than that iced water.  

As important and memorable as that moment was, engineers such as Roger Boisjoly of Morton Thiokol, the makers of the boosters, fought managers for at least the full day before the launch, with managers eventually overruling the engineers.  Feynman had been told about the cold temperature issues with the O-rings by several people, and local rumors were that he would go to some of the bars just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center and talk with workers about what they saw.  The simple example with the O-ring and glass of iced water was vivid and brought the issue home to millions. 

There's plenty of evidence that the crew of Challenger survived the explosion.  The crew cabin was specifically designed to be used as an escape pod, but after most of the design work, NASA decided to drop the other requirements to save weight.  The recovered cabin had clear evidence of activity: oxygen bottles being turned on, switches that require a few steps to activate being flipped.  It's doubtful they survived the impact with the ocean and some believe they passed out due to hypoxia before that.  We'll honestly never know.

Finally, at the end of this worst week, Shuttle Columbia, the oldest surviving shuttle flying as mission STS-107, broke up on re-entry 17 years later on February 1, 2003 scattering wreckage over the central southern tier of the country with most debris along the Texas/Louisiana line.  As details emerged about the flight, it turns out that Columbia and everyone on board had been sentenced to death at launch - they just didn't know it.  A chunk of foam had broken off the external tank during liftoff and hit the left wing's carbon composite leading edge, punching a hole in it.  There was no way a shuttle could reenter without exposing that wing to conditions that would destroy it.  They were either going to die on reentry or sit up there and run out of food, water and air.  During reentry, hot plasma worked its way into that hole, through the structure of the wing, burning through piece after piece, sensor after sensor, until the wing tore off the shuttle and tore the vehicle apart.  Local lore on this one is that the original foam recipe was changed due to environmental regulations, causing them to switch to a foam that didn't adhere to the tank or stand up to abuse as well. 

In 2014, Ars Technica did a deep dive article on possible ways that Columbia's crew could have been saved.  They republished that yesterday on the anniversary of the disaster.  It's interesting speculation, very detailed, compiled by a man who claims to have been a junior system administrator for Boeing in Houston, working in Mission Control that day.  

Like many of you, I remember them all.  I was a kid midway through 7th grade in Miami when Apollo 1 burned.  By the time of Challenger, I was a 32 year old working on commercial satellite TV receivers here near the KSC and watched Challenger live via the satellite TV, instead of going outside to watch it as I always did.  Mrs. Graybeard had just begun working on the unmanned side on the Cape, next door to the facility that refurbished the Shuttles SRBs between flights, and was outside watching the launch.  Columbia happened when it was feeling routine again.  Mom had fallen and was in the hospital; we were preparing to go down to South Florida to visit and I was watching the TV waiting to hear the double sonic booms shake the house as they always did. They never came.

The failure reports and investigations of all three of these disasters center on the same things: the problems with NASA's way of doing things.  They tended to rely on "well, it worked last time" when dealing with dangerous situations, or leaned too much toward, "schedule is king" all as a way of gambling that someone else would be the one blamed for delaying a mission.  Spaceflight is inherently very risky, so some risk taking is inevitable, but NASA had taken stupid risks too often.  People playing Russian Roulette can say, "well, it worked last time," but having worked doesn't change the odds of losing.




  1. It boiled down to: piss-poor management. Didn't it? It usually/almost always does. People who's butts aren't on the line, and have no idea the enormous consequences of their decisions... kinda like the Fed Administrators of various Gubmint agencies, eh?

    Anyway, SpaceX makes mistakes, "it" happens, and there's a big consequence of being wrong/sloppy. But they have these bad examples to kinda poke 'em in the eye - if they have the wit to pay attention to the lesson to be learned. Musk is a helluva engineer and knows some good management (although getting Shotwell to manage things was a genius move!) and lets the Engineers be engineers! This is one of the reasons Boeing is having so may problems now - the MBAs are running the asylum now. Here's hoping things don't get that way for many, many moons.

    Other smaller companies (Rocket Labs) are also following the experiences from history - or so it seems. More power to them. Pity Jeff Bezos can't take the hint, but it'll shake out in the rinse cycle. I hope.

  2. I worked in a far different field, but when the MBAs replaced the engineers, within a year or so cost went up and profits went down. So it was and shall be ever after.

  3. What's sad about the whole O-ring thing is the Cape regularly experiences below 40 degree weather during winter. So does Vandenberg, which was supposed to be another launch site. So some engineers and management decided to ignore normal weather conditions to begin with.

    Still amazes me to this day as much as it did when I found out about the O-ring problem.

    1. At the Challenger Flight Readiness Review, NASA management specifically asked the booster contractor management if their product was safe for the mission. There was a contractual requirement to be able to launch from Vandenberg, which routinely has worse weather than what KSC was experiencing. The booster contractor insured them it was safe. Do note that a booster test under similar conditions in Utah had previously been scheduled and then cancelled due to problems with SSME development, which required the money that had been planned for that solids test.

      As far as Columbia, NASA had changed the foam for the external tank to "green" to appease the enviro crowd. They insist that did not cause the foam separation, but you have seen the "science" regarding "green" over the past several years.

    2. Yep. 'Green' foam that wasn't, and was heavier and less strong than the previous stuff. If they stuck to the old old foam formula, they could have painted over said foam and still been under the weight of the 'green' foam and the paint would have served as a protective outer shell and helped hold the foam on.

      Not to mention, the tank gained weight with the green foam on it from humidity, which the old foam didn't have nearly that problem. And add liquid H2 and O2 and all that water in the foam freezes and expands and breaks the foam.

      Absolutely brilliant.

      As to weather at Vandenberg, lived there from 68-70, previously at Santa Maria from 66-68, so I am quite aware that the weather, especially next to the ocean, was and is quite under 40 degrees during winter, with lots of fog and humidity, which froze/freezes onto everything.

      And the first winter in Florida, in Satellite Beach just south of the Cape, I experienced snow for the first time on Christmas morn in 1973. And often rode to school in winter passing frozen-over yards.

      Someones, bunches of someones, screwed the pooch big time on those solid rocket boosters. And should have gone to Federal not-nice prison for life for what they did, along with the NASA eggheads and fatheads who were assigned the task of making sure that the manufacturer was actually providing a product as promised.

  4. NASA is asshoe.

    They are the purest example of the difference between pilot error, and programmed catastrophic failure.
    If, in any instance, the astronauts themselves hid risen up and slain the entire senior management, they should have been given medals for saving lives and doing justice.

    Turns out "government-run space program" works out about as well as "government-run" anything.

    I'd like to take the opportunity to list all the NASA officials charged and convicted of criminal negligence in the deaths of all our fallen astronauts, since ever:

    Kinda looks like the list of .gov pedophiles to whom Epstein and Maxwell pandered children.
    Funny old world, i'n'it?