Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Columbia Accident Report

This is more interesting than I thought it would be.

The language has a strange combination of bluntness and evasiveness that readers of the Kerwin Report on Challenger will find eerily familiar. Readers of The Time It Takes to Fall will remember that Dr. Kerwin examined the wreckage of Challenger's crew cabin and the crews' remains in order to speculate on the possible causes of the crew's deaths. Before this report was released, everyone assumed that the astronauts had died instantly at the moment of the explosion, but the Kerwin report exposed the fact that they (probably) survived the explosion and (probably) were still alive when the crew cabin impacted the surface of the ocean. The suggestion that the crew all blacked out instantly from depressurization is, while comforting, far from certain—the report includes this disturbing passage (actually a bullet point, because NASA loves the bullet points):
  • The crew seats and restraint harnesses showed patterns of failure which demonstrates that all the seats were in place and occupied at water impact with all harnesses locked. This would likely be the case had rapid loss of consciousness occurred, but it does not constitute proof.
The new Columbia report reflects the same fascination with consciousness or lack thereof; once again we are told that the crew blacked out when the cabin depressurized, possibly sparing them the suffering of being thrown about in the crew cabin, exposed to heat or cold, and knowing what was to occur. Students of Challenger can be forgiven for being skeptical about this comforting possibility. What went wrong with Columbia probably developed gradually (re-entry is a very slow process) and it's hard to imagine that the crew somehow escaped understanding what was going wrong.

In DailyTech, which you might have missed if you aren't an enormous geek, a debate emerged in the Comments area over the funds and effort expended on this study. Many readers felt that there's no point in pinpointing exactly what went wrong and why. These readers especially questioned the Report's deep interest in the crew's pressure suits and restraint harnesses, both of which seemed to have failed badly. Nothing to be gained by this further information, these readers say, and some go a step further to speculate that this report is timed to make NASA look bad just as Obama takes office in order to justify his slashing of their budget. (Question to DailyTech conspiracy theorists: wait, why is NASA releasing this report to justify their own budget slashing? Please advise.)

To me, the reason the expense and effort are justified seems obvious. But I'll let N. Wayne Hale, Jr., a former head of the shuttle program, answer for me. He said in the Times:

“I call on spacecraft designers from all the other nations of the world, as well as the commercial and personal spacecraft designers here at home, to read this report and apply these lessons which have been paid for so dearly.”

THAT'S why.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Also, it comforts us to know that, next time we buy our memory foam mattresses and freeze-dried ice cream and zero-gravity pens, they probably won't kill us.