Is shuttle captain a foam fan?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Two bloggers in my neighborhood make related points about the Columbia disaster and the related foam problems on the current shuttle mission. Their emphases differ, but the larger point is worth noting in light of statements made today by the captain of the current shuttle mission, Eileen Collins.

Over at Unconsidered Trifles, Willy Shake points to an article on the current space mission by Robert Garmong of ARI.

There is reason to believe that the political nature of the space program may have even been directly responsible for the Columbia disaster. Fox News reported that NASA chose to stick with non-Freon-based foam insulation on the booster rockets, despite evidence that this type of foam causes up to eleven times as much damage to thermal tiles as the older, Freon-based foam. Although NASA was exempted from the restrictions on Freon use, which environmentalists believe causes ozone depletion, and despite the fact that the amount of Freon released by NASA's rockets would have been trivial, the space agency elected to stick with the politically correct foam.
Willy Shake remarks, "If these accusations are true, then we have not, I hope, heard the last of this." Sadly, they are not only true, but this is not the first time something like this has happened. Former Houstonian and ex-NASA employee Hannes Hacker wrote this more detailed analysis of the Columbia disaster some time ago.

Why did the shuttle's foam insulation flake off? In response to an edict from the EPA, NASA was required to change the design of the thermal insulating foam on the shuttle's external tank. They stopped using Freon, or CFC-11, in order to comply with the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an agreement designed to head off doubtful prognostications of an environmental disaster.

But it was the elimination of the old foam that led to a real disaster for the shuttle program. The maiden flight with the new foam, in 1997, resulted in a ten-fold increase to foam-induced tile damage. The new foam was far more dangerous than the old foam. But NASA--a government organization afraid of antagonizing powerful political interests--did not reject the EPA's demands and thoroughly reverse their fatal decision. Instead, they sought a compromise, applying for a waiver from the EPA that allowed them to use the old foam on some parts of the external tank.


This is not the first time that has happened. The cause of the 1986 Challenger explosion is officially established as hot gases burning through an O-ring joint in one of the solid-rocket boosters. NASA was roundly criticized for its decision to launch in cold weather over the objection of some engineers, but there was a deeper cause that was not as widely reported.

In 1985 NASA had switched to a new putty to seal the O-ring joints. The new putty became brittle at cold temperatures, thus allowing Dr. Richard Feynman to teach NASA a famous lesson. At the congressional hearing investigating the accident, he simply placed some of the O-ring putty in a glass of ice water and crumbled it in his fingers.

NASA had changed the sealant because its original supplier for O-ring putty stopped producing it for fear of anti-asbestos lawsuits.

And so we have lost not one, but two space shuttles as a result of governmental abuse of power forcing space engineers to employ inferior materials in a situation that is, to grossly understate, unforgiving of error.

Another writer with experience at NASA, Felipe Sediles at d'Anconia Online, makes this observation when commenting on recent Fox News coverage of foam difficulties in the current shuttle mission.

Mindlessness, of course, breeds mindlessness. Engineers whom become accustomed to adjusting their judgment to the whims of politicians soon start doing the same with the aid of their own whims. Thus the whim of deciding to not modify the section where foam fell off of the recent Discovery launch.

It was not modified, nor analyzed, because they had not witnessed foam fall off of that section in the past. Yet, had they ever had the capacity to observe foam falling off through the entirety of the flight, or to check the ET after the fact? No. Did they even run tests on this section to see if foam could fall off? No. So a willful blindness, a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach coupled with the refusal to verify the health of equipment led to an utter failure to fix the [external tank].

We see the government overriding good decisions already made, in the name of junk science, and over a long period of time. Who, with any sense of pride or integrity, could bear to work in such an institutional climate? Who will be left after the predictable brain drain? And anyone familiar with the bowels of a bureaucracy will, rest assured, understand what things will be like for any conscientious newcomer. Think about all this for a moment. It is exactly, on a concrete level, what Robert Garmong means when he says the following.

It is impossible to integrate the contradictory. [bold added] To whatever extent an engineer is forced to base his decisions, not on the realities of science but on the arbitrary, unpredictable, and often impossible demands of a politicized system, he is stymied.
For the engineers working at NASA, their choice really is to continue working there at the risk of their self-respect and mental health or to get the hell out. Interestingly, a retired NASA engineer is mentioned in the story as not thinking much of current methods of foam application.
The Times said an internal NASA memo, written in December by a retired NASA engineer brought back to monitor the quality of the foam operation, complained that deficiencies remained in the way foam was being applied to the fuel tank and warned "there will continue to be a threat of critical debris generation."
But the engineers at least do not risk the sacrifice of their very lives on the altar of junk science. That privelege goes to the astronauts, at least one of whom sound like this does not bother her.
"Sometimes you can see how there is erosion, and you can see how there is deforestation. It's very widespread in some parts of the world," Collins said in a conversation from space with Japanese officials in Tokyo, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

"We would like to see, from the astronauts' point of view, people take good care of the Earth and replace the resources that have been used," said Collins, who was standing with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi in front of a Japanese flag and holding a colorful fan.

Collins, flying her fourth shuttle mission, said the view from space made clear that Earth's atmosphere must be protected, too.

"The atmosphere almost looks like an eggshell on an egg, it's so very thin," she said. "We know that we don't have much air, we need to protect what we have." [emphasis mine]
Does she realize the implications of what she is saying? Does she not know why the inferior foam is being used in the first place? Does she really mean to advocate environmentalism? Was she told to make this statement? Was she, as I cannot realistically hope, misquoted, or quoted out of context?

This completely flabbergasts me.

Our manned space program was once a glorious showcase for human achievement. But human achievement has intellectual requirements, among them a ruthless devotion to facts and a strict adherence to rationality. When those things disappear, only to be replaced by a senseless devotion to arbitrary dictates, the highest level of technology in the world will not save it from devolving to the level of the most barbaric ancient rituals of human sacrifice.

God help this shuttle mission land safely.

-- CAV


8-5-05: (1) Crossposted to the Egosphere, (2) Corrected bad wording.

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