Sunday, August 19, 2007

NASA Decides Not to Fix Heat Shields (or: Get your Outrage Goggles On)

In the past, I've written about the Outrage Goggles through which we tend to view the actions of NASA now that they have proved less than completely reliable at keeping shuttles from disintegrating. Before the Challenger disaster, no one wanted to hear about how temperature affects the elasticity of O-rings. Before the Columbia disaster, no one wanted to hear about the insulating foam that kept popping off the External Tank or how long the scratches on the heat shield were. Now that disasters have been caused by lack of concern about each of these issues, media attention has been raptly focused on them to the exclusion of anything else, and we watch the coverage with a frisson of pre-disaster excitement, tingling slightly with the feeling that disaster WILL be caused by one of these things, and predicting the future satisfaction of knowing we were rightly concerned while NASA engineers blithely hit the go button. All this when the biggest danger to any space shuttle mission is, as it has always been, those kooky main engines with their tendency to crack their turbines and blow up.

I'm moved to think of the Outrage Goggles again this week, when NASA has decided, sensibly it seems, not to have their astronauts fix a gouge in the heat shield, a process that itself puts the shield in more danger than the gouge warrants. Coverage of this decision has ranged from the nervously mistrustful to the mildly alarmed. Every article recounts the Columbia disaster (though they've stopped retelling the Challenger story, have you noticed? What is the condition of those Solid Rocket Booster joints? We just don't know). The coverage is suffused with the feeling that NASA is putting its astronauts, and the orbiter we all own, at risk by refusing to fix it.

I'd be the last to say that we should all relax and assume that NASA knows what they're doing, but it's maddening to see our attention directed so narrowly toward the one thing that happens to have caused the last crack-up.

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