Curious Bed Fellows: The Shuttle Columbia and Benghazi Disasters

Thomas Finn - February 1, 2013 11:48 AM | Categories: Uncategorized

Today marks the ten-year anniversary of the shuttle Columbia disaster. Seven astronauts were killed. In case you don’t remember, as Columbia passed over Texas en route to a routine landing in Florida, its left wing failed and the craft literally came apart.

As it turned out, Columbia failed to survive some routine damage it sustained during takeoff. Naturally, a full-blown witch-hunt ensued and NASA’s aging, insular and rigid bureaucracy was exposed. The entire institution was put on trial. Indeed, bureaucracies like NASA’s and the “middle aged white men” who ran them became related in an unfortunate way during those hearings –in a way that dogs the latter to this day.

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A six-part series by then-Los Angeles Times staff writer Robert Lee Hotz,  who would become a Pulitzer finalist for his investigative coverage, not only revealed the organizational and scientific neglect that ultimately killed NASA on this count —but the shameless failings of its leadership.

“The Columbia accident investigation was the most exhaustive scientific inquest ever undertaken. Suspicion led down a hundred blind alleys. Investigators quarreled. Mission insiders tried to control the probe. Outsiders railed about secrecy. Every imperfection they found revealed a human face.” And all that they learned reinforced what James Hallock a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board discovered, but no one wanted to admit; that the reinforced carbon panels on the shuttle’s wings were defective. Although they had been designed to survive reentry, they were not designed to withstand the routine shelling of debris all shuttles encountered during their own takeoff.

As it turned out: Just 81.9 seconds after liftoff, a piece of insulation foam flaked off the shuttle’s 15-story external fuel tank and punched a hole in the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing. Observers of the takeoff who had actually spotted the strike and wanted to follow up were systematically quieted and/or discredited.

While Columbia was still in orbit, shuttle managers had silenced internal critics who warned of possible foam damage. They dismissed the concerns for lack of proof, then ensured that no proof could become available. The managers rejected three requests that intelligence agency observatories and imaging satellites be used to inspect the orbiter. Over the years, shuttle managers had treated each additional debris strike not as evidence of failure that required immediate correction, but as proof that the shuttle could safely survive impacts that violated its design specifications. Three months before Columbia’s last flight, foam debris had severely damaged the shuttle Atlantis. Program managers met to decide what corrective action they should take. Rather than suspend all flights while engineers explored ways to fix the problem — as official procedure previously dictated — they decided Columbia should proceed without delay. They refused to classify the incident as an official ‘in-flight anomaly.’ Instead, they adopted a formal ‘flight rationale’ stating that it was safe to fly. A generation of NASA managers had turned engineering on its head, viewing evidence of failure as signs of success. For Columbia’s last flight, all the paperwork was in order.”

On reentry, the puncture wound created by the foam became the entry vent that turned Columbia’s left wing into a fatal furnace. The Columbia disaster came 17 years after the shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, also killing seven astronauts. Challenger’s demise was traced to an O-ring that couldn’t expand properly during a Florida cold snap.

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But times certainly change. As Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton not only “accepted full responsibility” during the recent congressional hearings on the Benghazi disaster, but at the same time, she was openly angry at any suggestion her department was negligent. Please put your politics aside for just a moment and ask yourself how you do that?

Hats should be off this weekend in remembrance of those brave souls with “the right stuff.” Had they not been such notable characters, perhaps we wouldn’t have worked so hard to find the truth(s) back then. It remains remarkable to me, however, that so many organizations even to this day –especially of the inside the beltway type– allow themselves to behave like NASA did all those years ago. It’s still all about CYA, but with one powerful difference. “Accepting full responsibility” has become a hall pass of sorts. We’ve evolved into an era where meaningless gestures carry a lot of weight.

Source: Los Angeles Times

—Tom Finn

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