This week, we face a tragic triumverate anniversary.

Jan. 27, 1967, the Apollo mission went awry on the launch pad, killing three.

Jan. 28, 1986, a bad booster seal destroyed the shuttle Challenger and killed seven.

Feb. 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia blew up over Texas, scattering debris over several states and another seven.

The first episode happened before my birth, but I was a college freshman the second time around. I remember racing back to the dorm lounge where we sat and watched the awful replay. It's interesting that by the time the Columbia rolled around, Shuttle missions were so commong that many of us were unaware we had a spacecraft up until things went wrong.

I received an email from a source in Washington* pointing out this news article and was stunned to read how NASA had dealt with it over the years. This may be the largest example of head-in-the-sand denial that we've ever been a witness to. I've posted excerpts below with a link to the full article at the bottom.


"A graphic example of this "aversion of eyes" can be found in the Challenger memorial services of the past, and the historical summaries now widely published. The heart of the matter is the clash between “73” and “207”.

Challenger had been in flight for 73 seconds when it broke apart, and the cabin -- with its crew still alive but presumably (and mercifully) soon unconscious from anoxia -- continued its upwards, then downwards arc for another 134 seconds. This was more than two whole minutes of additional flight before the cabin hit the water, killing the astronauts.

This is the reality that was all too easy for most people to turn away from. After the 73 seconds of silence, as other space workers shuffled back to their desks, their duties to the dead ostensibly done, I and a few friends would continue to stand in silence for the true flight duration, the true last seconds of the astronauts’ lives, 207 seconds in all. We had had enough of comfortable make-believe. And so these days, whenever some space official who ought to know (and say) better uses the phrase “73 seconds”, you have one more unintentionally self-confessed averter of eyes."


"For the Challenger disaster, numerous "scrubs" had led to schedule pressure and news media mockery. Two upcoming planet missions had irrevocable launch dates, and could not slip. Meanwhile, NASA’s new administrator was on Capitol Hill meeting with congressmen that day.

When engineers said that weather was colder than ever tested and trended "away from goodness," and that the brittle booster seals had never been tested under those conditions, their managers were ordered them to "take off their engineering hats and put on management hats." The engineers were challenged to prove it was NOT safe to launch, and they had no data to do so."


Full story: Deadly space lessons go unheeded - Space News - MSNBC.com

*I've always wanted to obliquely refer to 'a source in Washington', and in this case, I can. I have never met this person in realtime; they're a blog reader who works in government. I feel like Bob Woodward, but younger.

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