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) had been scrutinized and investigated more thoroughly than any institution since the Watergate White House – by newspapers and television networks, by a Senate committee and a blue-ribbon presidential commission. Every possible cause of the accident had been proposed and analyzed and reported daily for four months. At the Johnson Space Center near Houston, there was some low-key grumbling about the incompetents at the Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama, but that was an intra-agency grumble of thirty years’ standing – since before NASA was chartered – a sympathetic censure. One of the lessons of the hearings was that NASA personnel never throw stones at one another’s houses, even when their careers are in jeopardy. The hearings seemed boring compared with the shrill soap opera of the White House staff during Watergate.

The space center’s staff endured the entire interminable tribunal, watching the monitors, in the hope that the Challenger failure might at last be comprehended. More than anyone else in America, they desired, even required, to know what had gone wrong. What they heard was a judgment that revealed no understanding. The design flaws and the poor planning and the irresponsible management were all pretty obvious by then. Decisions had been made without courage and had brought on disaster.

Nobody at the center had any quarrel with that analysis or dodged his portion of it. They all needed to learn what the lapse portended. Can the will to be perfect be rediscovered? How can they know if they have been healed?

The Rogers Commission was no help at all. It offered a lot of hindsight engineering and easy talk about tough choices, but not a single clue as to where the music went. The staff wandered away from the TV sets in desultory consternation, disappointed by the commission’s shallow findings and, worse of all, still unsure of themselves.

Twenty-five years ago, in the innocent dawn of the space age, America embarked upon a new sea with two purposes representing two distinct visions. One was utilitarian and practical-minded, essentially political. The other was farsighted, idealistic, and fundamentally spiritual. Each was articulated in two different speeches by the bold young president who rallied the nation to begin the journey, John F. Kennedy.

The first was an address to Congress in May 1961, barely three weeks after Alan Shepard made America’s maiden flight into space. “Now it is the time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth,” Kennedy said. Speaking from the podium of the House of Representatives, with the full panoply of government about him in a national broadcast, he was formal and stern. “Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which give them many months of lead time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts of our own,” he said. “For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”

The speech was nothing less than a call to arms: the Russians are overhead! Kennedy presented the challenge of space exploration in terms that politicians understood – advantage and survival. Most historians rightly point to that speech as the real beginning of America’s space program, and they imply that the underlying

Tags: NASA

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week