Pharyngula

It’s so good to see someone take off the rose-colored glasses and tell it like it is: the space shuttle was a flop.

The most important thing to realize about the space shuttle program is that it is objectively a failure. The shuttle was billed as a reusable craft that could frequently, safely, and cheaply bring people and payloads to low Earth orbit. NASA originally said the shuttles could handle 65 launches per year; the most launches it actually did in a year was nine; over the life of the program, it averaged five per year. NASA predicted each shuttle launch would cost $50 million; they actually averaged $450 million. NASA administrators said the risk of catastrophic failure was around one in 100,000; NASA engineers put the number closer to one in a hundred; a more recent report from NASA said the risk on early flights was one in nine. The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.

I first had my doubts after Challenger blew up; it wasn’t the failure of the mission that bothered me — I understood that it was risky — but NASA’s responses in the hearings afterwards. I watched those; it was where Richard Feynman really caught the public eye.

According to reports after the Challenger disaster, the ship exploded because of a faulty joint that included an O-ring hardened by especially cold conditions before launch. More importantly, this was far from an isolated problem, as illustrated by a report by Richard Feynman. Feynman slammed not only the O-ring error but the entire process of building and testing the shuttle, plus the management style and decision-making of NASA, for good measure. When he wrote, “Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality,” and, “They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space,” he meant they were at the time not living in reality, which is generally the place engineers ought to live. NASA’s recent report on shuttle safety found that the chance of making it through first 25 flights (#25 being Challenger’s last flight) was only 6%, and the chance of 88 safe flights between the Challenger and Columbia disasters was just 7%. If the study is accurate, then Challenger and Columbia weren’t freak accidents—the flights before them were freak successes.

I got the impression from those hearings that NASA had become an engineering bureaucracy, dedicated to dogmatic, almost ritualistic redundancy and caution, where following procedure, no matter how flawed, was always the answer. Feynman was fabulous cut through all the nonsense and just asked what worked and what didn’t.

Goodbye, old lemon. Let’s hope the next new model actually comes up to spec.