Columbia and the Final Frontier

Part 1

Disclaimer: All opinions on this site and in each article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any person, entity, agency, institution unless stated otherwise.

July 21, 2003

For the last two days in the Houston Chronicle, I’ve been reading articles—which really are essays in disguise—by Tony Freemantle and Mark Tolson--that are raising questions about the viability of the space shuttle. Well and good. I never have a problem with anyone questioning anything. Usually, whatever is being questioned will be the stronger for it. But during both days, these guys have not gotten their facts straight; and that is raising serious credibility concerns with what they are writing.

I have the dubious distinction of being one of those people who was working at NASA, Johnson Space Center in particular, during both the Challenger and the Columbia accidents. In the first installment of the Houston Chronicle articles, the authors imply that, unlike in the aftermath of the Challenger accident, space experts and government entities are questioning the shuttle’s reason for being and stating it’s just not worth it. Yes, they are. But they did also do the same thing after Challenger. In fact, there was more doubt about whether the shuttle program would press ahead, would exist at all than there is now. Wouldn’t a thorough search of the reporting of that day have shown that? I certainly remember it that way, and the current “nay-saying” comes to me as no surprise. I’ve been down this road before. Not only with the Challenger and Columbia accidents but also because I’ve had a long involvement with aviation. This same kind of reaction has occurred with every accident that involves a public loss of life. The good news is that, despite it, we still keep flying.

In today’s article, the guys tell a story about Eileen Collins flying a simulated space shuttle approach in Building 9. In reality, the Building 9 simulators are used for ingress/egress training and RMS operations. There is no simulation capability of the type they’re mentioning there. The most likely place Eileen would do such a thing is in the Shuttle Mission Simulator in Building 5. She might also do such a thing in the Shuttle Engineering Simulator in Building 16 or if she were working in the Shuttle Avionics Integrated Laboratory (SAIL) in the same building. Or maybe if she were flying the VMS (Vertical Motion Simulator) at AMES Research Center or in the Shuttle Training Aircraft shooting approaches at Edwards AFB or White Sands, NM or KSC in Fla. They really missed the boat on this as well. With two misses in two days, what else have they gotten wrong? More to the point, what is it that they have right?

To be continued…

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