ME and Ophelia

Saturday, October 04, 2003

The Chicken Littles and Ostriches of NASA

James K. Lee in the USA blogged about the NASA engineer story published in the New York Times September 26 and 27, 2003 - and explained the meaning of the American expression "Chicken Little".

As recounted by James Glanz and John Schwartz, some 30 space engineers became concerned about Columbia's safety after watching films that showed a piece of foam break away during lift-off and strike the left wing at a spot that could not be seen.

The engineers chose one of their number, NASA engineer Rodney Rocha, to convey their belief to shuttle managers that NASA should immediately request images of the impact area from spy satellites or powerful telescopes on the ground that could show possible damage to the Columbia's wing.

Mr Rocha was a natural choice of his fellow engineers as a go-between on the initial picture request. He was chief engineer in Johnson Space Center's structural engineering division and a man with a reputation for precision and integrity, his words were likely to carry great weight. He had already sent an email message to the shuttle engineering office asking if the astronauts could visually inspect the impact area through a small window on the side of the craft.

Mr Rocha said he tried at least half a dozen times to get the space agency to make the requests. There were two similar efforts by other engineers. All were turned aside. Mr Rocha said a manager told him that he refused to be a "Chicken Little".

The Columbia's flight director, LeRoy Cain, wrote a curt email message that concluded, "I consider it to be a dead issue".

Failure to follow up on the request for outside imagery - the first step in discovering the damage and perhaps mounting a rescue effort - was actively, even hotly resisted by mission managers, leading Mr Rocha to complain that NASA was acting more like "an ostrich with its head in the sand".

Faced with resistance, Mr Rocha lost steam. He shrank from sending an email note accusing shuttle managers of borderline irresponsibility and accepted a Boeing analysis (later shown to be fatally flawed) that the foam strike posed no risk to the shuttle.
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Letter to the Editor of the New York Times on September 29, 2003

In response to the NASA engineer story in the New York Times a reader wrote to the Editor posing the following questions that, after reading the articles, I asked myself:

"What is it about bureaucracies with significant missions that impels them to forsake the basic virtue of humility? History is replete with decisions by governmental and corporate officials that are made with such blind and even stupid hubris as to be almost incomprehensible in hindsight.

Your Sept. 26 front-page article about Rodney Rocha, the humble, thoughtful and almost painfully ordinary NASA engineer, emphasizes his quiet and dogged heroism. And yet, what if he had gotten really angry - angry enough to risk his job?

What if the C.I.A. analysts who were quietly fuming over the overly optimistic (or pessimistic) intelligence reports from the Defense Department about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had gotten really, really angry and written to anyone (up to Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser) that they were willing to put their jobs on the line for this one thing?

What if we all realized that we matter, and then did something about it?" [Courtesy of New York Times Letters Page, Brodie Stephens, San Leandro, Calif.]
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Yes, Rodney Rocha and the thirty other engineers should have gotten really angry - angry enough to risk their jobs.

None of the engineers at NASA were willing to put their jobs on the line for this one thing.

They should have realized that every life matters and done more to help the astronauts, regardless of any impact on jobs and careers.

In my view they were all cowards, thinking only of their own skins.

Any one of the 31 engineers could have leaked an email or found other simple ways to bring their beliefs to the attention of other people, even if it meant alerting the media or the friends and relatives of the astronauts.

Because none of the NASA engineers were willing to put their jobs on the line, they now have to live with the guilt and consequences of turning a blind eye to incompetence, cowardice and downright self serving greed at the cost of seven lives and countless other shattered lives.

I would risk getting fired from a job which stops me from having a clear conscience or sleeping OK at night knowing I had not done my best. I speak from experience as one who once went over the head of a boss - and there were not even any lives at stake. It cost me dearly but I have no regrets. Other people benefited from my whistleblowing. My conscience is clear. I did my best. If I had it to do all over again, I would do exactly the same.

My personal motto: do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you. No doubt the astronauts would have wanted to be asked to visually inspect the impact area through a small window on the side of their craft.
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Holding individuals accountable is part of the agenda

To make sure that this sorry chain of events does not recur, NASA has reached agreements with outside agencies to take images during every shuttle flight and is seeking ways to encourage, or even insist upon, the presentation of dissenting viewpoints.

Congress has opened several lines of inquiry into the mission, and holding individuals accountable is part of the agenda.

[Courtesy of the New York Times report 'Chicken Littles and Ostriches at NASA' published September 27, 2003]
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In September or October 2004

NASA officials announced on Friday that they would try to launch the next shuttle mission to the International Space Station next September or October. As recently as last month, the agency hoped to fly again by next spring.

But on Friday, William Readdy, associate administrator for spaceflight for NASA, said the new target date was more realistic, given the amount of testing and modifications that still needed to be done.

[With thanks to the New York Times report by Warren E Leary on October 4, 2003]


Tuesday, 23 September, 2003 - Nasa flight safety panel quits: All 11 members of the US space agency's (Nasa) spaceflight security panel have resigned in the wake of criticism over the loss of the shuttle Columbia earlier this year.

Tuesday, 26 August, 2003 - Columbia report faults Nasa managers: The fatal break-up of the Columbia space shuttle was caused by long-standing flaws in Nasa's staff culture as much as technical problems, an independent investigation has found. "From the beginning, the board witnessed a consistent lack of concern about the debris strike on Columbia" CAIB report.

Wednesday, 27 August, 2003 - Columbia 'could have been rescued': Had the damage to the Columbia space shuttle been spotted before re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, a rescue attempt to save the crew could have been made, according to the final report on the orbiter's fatal break-up.
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# posted by Ingrid J. Jones @ 10/04/2003
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