Spaceflight is hard, and dangerous

A new documentary about the two Shuttle accidents, STS-51L and STS-107, has just been released via Vimeo, “Major Malfunction”.  It’s pretty sobering, and very well done.  You see the human and institutional side of it.  When you’ve seen a failure occur multiple times without causing anything terrible, you start to think it’s normal — and that error fed into both accidents.  And then there’s “go fever”; both missions were delayed many times, creating huge pressure to get them up, and that was definitely part of it too.  And no engineer, if they are honest with themselves, can say they’d never fall into one of these traps.  It’s why you need many voices, not just one, so that hopefully there’s someone there who is seeing it right.

I do have a few minor quibbles with the documentary; in particular, at the end they describe NASA as shifting from Shuttle to unmanned vehicles, when in fact Shuttle was shut down explicitly to permit funding of the Constellation program, a deep-space *manned* program.  The Orion spacecraft for that program will make its first unmanned test flight later this year, to validate its heat shield.  Meanwhile, by the time Shuttle shut down in 2011, the commercial crew effort had begun; that effort will likely bear fruit in the next couple of years with three different contenders developing distinctive manned vehicles.  We shall see if these commercial providers have learned the lessons that NASA learned far too painfully in 1986 and 2004.

I’d also like to recommend the book “Comm Check”.  It’s a very in-depth and agonizingly human look at the Columbia accident and the investigation that followed.  If you liked this documentary, “Comm Check” will take you further.

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