May 24, 2003
rescue of the shuttle crew was "conceivable"

A classmate's father, who recently retired from managing payloads for the Shuttle and worked for Grumman in the glory days when they built the LEM, sent me an application for NASA's Astronaut Corps a few years ago. I kept it, thinking that once I graduated, I might just send it in.

With that application in hand, I have thought very seriously at times of what it might mean to send it in. I spent a great deal of time (and sacrificed many trees) printing out public reports and feasibility studies on a manned Mars mission, and wondered what it might be like being a mission physician on a two year sojourn on Mars and in space. I've read Gene Krantz's autobiography, and Andrew Chaikin's excellent history of the Apollo program. No doubt much of this was daydreaming, and now I have many earthbound obligations, but the Space Program represented for me a combination of both the most visceral of human yearnings, exploration, and the idealism that makes such an urge material, whether in the form of a wooden bark, or a Saturn V.

It's discouraging that NASA is a very different institution now. The blame doesn't reside in NASA alone. Society's priorities have changed. Most respected historians of the Space Program note that the triumphant arrival of American astronauts on the Moon was a sublimation of the arms race with the Soviet Union, and without that ideological/military competition, the urge to pour a civilization's wealth and talent into such a focused goal has dissipated. And with this dissipation comes bureaucratization and diminution of ambition. And worse, the pernicious fatalism that sacrificed seven astronauts.

Perhaps the greatest indictment of this institutional passivity is Adm. Harold Gehman's statement yesterday that, supposing the danger to the Shuttle's crew had been seen with the proper urgency, the Atlantis, which was being readied for the next mission, could have been sent up on a rescue mission with an abbreviated pre-flight.

Drawing a comparison with military pilots, Gehman suggested that there is an "unwritten contract" that the utmost will be done to rescue stranded crew. No doubt this rescue mission would have been exceedingly difficult--there is no provision for two Shuttles to dock to one another, so astronauts would have had to space walk from the Columbia to the Atlantis--and risky for both crews, but the fact that there was no opportunity to even entertain the notion of a rescue is tragic.

Apollo 13 represents the best of American values, absolute refusal to accept failure and the ingenuity of hundreds of engineers and controllers to bring three men in a dead spaceship back home. What happened to this spirit? It is still hard for me to digest the notion that individual engineers can have identified danger to the crew, but that the Shuttle Program's culture accepted that nothing might be done, and fatalistically let the crew perish in a fireball above Texas.


Posted by erich at May 24, 2003 11:10 AM
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