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.

October 1986By Comments

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.

MAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE
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 impulse was political, calculated, and historically necessary. And that is how it has been presented for 25 years: America entered the space race in response to the Soviet Union’s “impressive successes.”

Those involved in the program don’t always remember it that way, however. Alan Shepard, today a Houston businessman, recalls, “I don’t really think we – and I’m talking for the astronauts and the engineers that were associated with us – were anywhere near as cognizant of a space race with the Russians as other folks would like to have use believe. Just before my flight some people said we should fly another test, which many of us didn’t feel was necessary. We wanted to go right away. And I was chomping at the bit. Not because of a sense of the Soviets, but because we were ready. And I mean ready.

“But because of safety, another unmanned mission was flown, which went perfectly, so off we go. But in the meantime [Soviet cosmonaut Yuri] Gagarin had made his flight. Had we even considered that, we could have beaten them. But the pressure of competition with the Soviets was a factor.”

What then was the motivation? What inspired the space pioneers to risk their necks and devote their lives to leaving the earth? “Why choose this as our goal?” asked President Kennedy in his second speech on the new space program. “And they may well ask, Why climb the highest mountain? Why thirty-five years ago fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?”

Kennedy was speaking at Rice University Stadium on September 12, 1962. He had gone to Houston to help dedicate the new Manned Spacecraft Center – later to become the Johnson Space Center – and his visit moved and inspired him. “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people,” he said.

His speech was not about why America needed to go, but why it wanted to: “Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, ‘Because it is there.’ Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it. And the moon and the planets are there, and new hope for knowledge and peace are there. And therefore as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on this most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

Copies of the speech were not distributed to the press, nor was it printed in the Congressional Record, nor was it broadcast nationwide. The transcript came from Houston’s KPRC-TV, which filmed the event – and that helps to explain how historians have managed to forget it – but there can be no doubt that Kennedy meant what he said. His speech was far more forceful, more eloquent, and more heartfelt than anything he had said before Congress.

“It was a much more mature speech,” says Alan Shepard, who was present for both of them. “In the first one he was going to Congress essentially to ask for funds, so it had to be a political speech. When he spoke at Rice we were already here in Houston, we were working, moving ahead. So he didn’t need to justify it. He could just say what he felt.”

It was the sort of message that historians and journalists dismiss because it lacks facts and figures and sounds too emotional to have any bearing on strategic policy. Yet its influence on the American space program was lasting and direct and perhaps more profound than that of the formal address.

“I can barely remember the Washington speech,” says Shepard. “I remember being there and all that, and knowing at the time it was important. I was glad he did it, because it meant we were in business. I’ve never forgotten the Rice speech, though. That one really came back a lot. After Kennedy was killed, and we were working on Apollo years later, I’d think about it sometimes. I remember thinking about it on the way back from the moon. It was like we’d really done it, lived up to it. It wasn’t just an ego trip.”

ALL PROMISE AND NO MEANING
When the vice president and the director of communications rushed into the Oval Office with the news that the shuttle had exploded, President Reagan’s immediate response was “Isn’t that the one with the teacher on it?”

Indeed it was, and Christa McAuliffe’s death gave resonance and clarity to the Challenger disaster. The astronauts were professional heroes, and though their deaths were sadly unfortunate, they were nonetheless nobly fitting – righteous stuff – and not as tragic. Schoolteacher McAuliffe, on the other hand, was the first pure passenger on a spacecraft, a simple fellow traveler representing everyone who believes in space exploration. She was the symbol of a democratic and routine space program, and the fiery demise of that ideal was America’s tragedy. It was more shocking than a similar accident would have been 25 years before, when Americans half-expected Alan Shepard to go up in flames.

The nation was as stunned by the Challenger failure as it had been elated by the Freedom 7 flight. Twenty-five years ago the national press had been reporting for weeks and months on the perils of Shepard’s mission, the unknown dangers and agonies awaiting him. Even if his rocket somehow managed to launch him alive, experts predicted, weightlessness would clot his brain and stop his heart. When he survived those imagined horrors, the press was ecstatic, downright idolatrous.

In 1986 the situation was reversed. For weeks and months before the Challenger, the media had painted NASA as a bunch of timid clowns who couldn’t get a flight off the ground on time. Dan Rather, America’s top-rated TV newsman, described NASA’s efforts on the CBS Evening News as “high-tech low comedy” the night before the fatal launch. “Yet another costly, red-faces-all-around space-shuttle launch delay. This time a bad bolt on the hatch and a bad-weather bolt from the blue are being blamed. What’s more, a rescheduled launch for tomorrow doesn’t look good, either,” he said.

In the aftermath of that awful tomorrow, the press had reacted with an indignant zeal that is as misplaced as the hero worship they fell into during the early days. NASA’s post-Challenger image problems have grown from the agency’s promising – and delivering – on the moon. Against that background any shortcoming seems ignoble and shameful. Just as Congress expected NASA to build a low-budget spaceship capable of anything, the media expected the agency to follow the script, like Star Trek. It was those expectations, as much as the Challenger, that blew up on January 28.

There can be no doubt that NASA made major mistakes in the shuttle program – “flawed decision-making process,” in the words of commission chairman William P. Rogers. The most damaging evidence is the paper trail of alarms and misgivings about the solid-rocket-booster joints, which today look so obviously suspect. Having finally gotten our bitter attention, the concerns voiced in waylaid memos insist on being answered now. The easy response is to blame somebody for ignoring them, which is what the commission did.

But what if those memos had never been written? What if nobody had ever worried about those joints until they failed catastrophically? That would have absolved NASA of all responsibility and would have made all the disaster an act of God. The memos are proof that NASA’s managers knew they were making risky decisions; the memos reveal frustrated competence. In making their decisions, the managed compromised themselves, as politicians do.

The space shuttle had been justified completely on political grounds, authorized by Washington in typical logrolling fashion. It was delayed more than two years while congressmen and presidents debated its costs and benefits, its purpose, its very design. In 1978 the shuttle was nearly scrapped by Congress after costs increased and delays persisted, but the Carter administration and the Pentagon wanted the spy satellites that the shuttle could deliver.

The adventure of space travel began to lose its appeal – or at least its support – in the nation’s capitol. The powerful congressional subcommittees that supervised NASA shrank in power, and the agency’s funding dwindled accordingly. NASA’s funding and employment was cut in half over a five-year period in the early seventies, prompting an exodus of talent and experience, a decline in morale, and a change in direction.

Washington’s vision of the space shuttle was all promise and no meaning, like a platform pledge. The shuttle was supposed to accomplish whatever America wanted done in space for the next twenty years, and do it dependably and frequently. It was supposed to make space travel commonplace and available to everyone, to answer needs that hadn’t been imagined yet, to fulfill every fantasy in Washington.

National policy dictated that the shuttle should pay for itself to boot, just as Amtrak or the post office does. That meant launching commercial satellites for whoever could afford it and soliciting customers with discount and perks and delivery guarantees. It required doing volume business and maintaining a busy schedule and even brought the equivalent of frequent flyer bonuses.

Gregory Jarvis was on board the fatal flight because the company he worked for, Hughes Aircraft Company, had purchased enough shuttle cargo space to qualify for a free ride. Jarvis was an engineer who devised micro-gravity fluid experiments to make his trip worthwhile and useful, and he spent a year and a half preparing for the journey. Yet he had been bumped from two previous flights by politicians who had trained part-time for a couple of months and who were best qualified to get sick and still smile. That’s all that needs to be said about the priorities of America’s space program today and about who is responsible for those priorities.

Christa McAuliffe was on board, of course, because the president of the United States had decided that it was sound public policy to send a teacher into outer space. The space shuttle was no longer a risky, experimental vehicle but a safe and predictable public service. The vice president followed by inviting journalists to apply for flight status and promising them seats.

The point here is not to find culprits. Placing blame is instinctively a political exercise, the first resort of faithless people. Can anyone honestly pretend that flawed decision-making was limited to a few public servants at the Marshall Space Center? Did the Challenger disaster result from the single-point failure of a massively intricate spacecraft, or was it more the inevitable consequence of a misguided, small-minded policy that brought its own doom?

NASA’s tragedy is that it has been reduced to the level of petty politics, sucking up to every special-interest group that appears at the launchpad: congressmen, corporations, journalists, Saudi princes, generals and admirals, and teachers. The space program’s flaw is that there is no program; there are no long-range goals, no bold plans, no high purpose – no purpose at all. By attempting willy-nilly to satisfy everyone, NASA has failed itself.

One can reasonable argue that NASA is dollar-for-dollar and year-for-year the finest public agency in the whole U.S. government, certainly the most successful. But an inquiry to explore what makes it work has never been mounted. During the Rogers Commission’s long-winded hearings, there had scarcely been a word of testimony – and no questions at all – about what motivates the men and women of NASA to devote their lives to leaving the earth. What do they hope to accomplish? Why do Americans want to go into outer space? For what reason did the Challenger Seven die?

AMERICA’S PYRAMIDS
In the gray lunar dust of the Sea of Serenity, at the foot of the eons-old Apennine Mountains, lies an eight-inch aluminum figure of a human being in a space suit. It represents the Fallen Astronaut, and it was placed there by Dave Scott, the commander of Apollo 15, in August 1971. “This is to commemorate all of those who have lost their lives so that man could climb the stars,” he said quietly. And then he called the roll of American and Russian spacefarers – from Gus Grissom to Yuri Gagarin – who had fallen during the dangerous climb.

The ceremony was private. The astronauts had thought of it and had contacted their Soviet counterparts; Scott carried the figure and a plaque of the engraved names with his personal belongings. The ceremony wasn’t in the flight plan or the mission checklist, nor was it broadcast or telecast. Scott’s words were taped because the flight records taped everything he said, but they weren’t on the transcript released to the press; no newspaper reported the event. He took a photograph of the figure in the dust for Alexei Leonov, the Soviet commander of the Apollo-Soyuz, but it wasn’t released to the media either. 

“As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley Base,” said Scott, “I realize there is a fundamental truth to our nature. Man must explore. And this is exploration at its greatest. … I can look up and see our good earth back there.”

It was a ceremony for the faithful. Exploring the unknown is an act of faith by definition, and those who devote their lives to it are automatically fellow travelers. They understand and bear the risks and sacrifices better than they can explain or defend because they believe in the act for its own sake. Like all true believers, they don’t know how to justify their faith.

Evaluating the space program by political standards has done nothing but diminish it for the last fifteen years. The values of politics are short-range and self-serving, the methods are promise and compromise, and the goals are shallow. The result is a space effort that is as uninspired as every other government program, and it wastes lives and money.

Today there are six American flags on the moon as evidence that another, less political, standard produced better results. Some have been there for more than fifteen years, yet they still mark the farthest reach of the human race. They might represent the American equivalent of the pyramids: monuments to a once-great nation. That they will outlast America is certain. Those flags will be there till the sun dies, undisturbed in the emptiness of space, standing in the light of infinite time. They will endure as reminders, like the little Fallen Astronaut.

Today seven more names may be added to the roll of the fallen, seven more lost climbers to commemorate. They will not be the last. The remarkable thing is that the names have been so few for as far as man has traveled. After all, it is the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

We set sail on the void sea because we will have a larger destiny if we do, because, as President Kennedy said, there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all mankind. We do not need to justify the effort; just by making it we give ourselves meaning and purpose, and new possibilities. We absolutely must carry on.

We should give it our best, too.

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