Where NASA Went Wrong

The tragedy of our space program is that by attempting to satisfy everyone—politicians, corporations, journalists, and generals—it has failed itself.

Last June, when the Rogers Commission announced the results of its four-month investigation of the Challenger disaster, the people of the Johnson Space Center gathered to watch and listen to the bad news. It happened quite naturally. Spread throughout the center is a ubiquitous closed-circuit television system, with hundreds of monitors within paces of nearly half of the six thousand base employees. During a space launch the monitors are all on nonstop, all of them tuned to the Mission Control Center in Building 30 – live and direct.

The system enables everyone to follow the mission in detail, continuously, collectively. By focusing the center’s attention, it assembles an array of skills and specialties that is ineffable yet instantly available. Any problems that arise in orbit are presented immediately to the world’s greatest pool of extra-terrestrial experts, glued together to their TV sets. One result is teamwork on an unearthly scale, a fluid unity of awareness and action.

Another result is group perception and response, the reinforcement of the space professional’s character. A personality emerges that is somewhere between science fair hero and career military, the top gun of nerd-dom. It is ultra-high-tech and deeply introverted, with its own signs, jargon, codes, and superstitions. When a flight is in progress on the closed-circuit system, the people of the Johnson Space Center become a true community, a kind of zero-gravity PTL Club. If you bother them, distract them, every one of them will tell you impatiently, “We’re flying!”

On January 28, when Space Shuttle Mission 51-L was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the space pros at the Johnson Space Center were flying along as usual. For 78 seconds. Challenger had been under their control since it cleared the tower at 6.84 seconds. Yet for a full minute after the shuttle exploded, the voices continued as if everything were nominal. The pros gaped in disbelief at blank readouts. The space center was like a church struck by lightning in the middle of Communion. The mission clock kept running for three days, until President Reagan’s speech at the memorial service. Before that no one could admit the finality of the event, the reality.

Four months later the space center’s staff gathered once again around the TV monitors, attentive as could be, waiting to her the space program’s sins described. Challenger had been, in part, their creation and their responsibility, and they were ready to be chastised for its failure. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Tags: NASA

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