First find out what happened -- then find out why

Unlike politicians and the public, people working on the shuttle know it's still experimental, an expert on the Challenger disaster says.

Published February 1, 2003 8:06PM (EST)

Diane Vaughan is the author of "The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA," published in 1996. In her book, Vaughan, a sociologist at Boston College, explored how political pressures, organizational dynamics and high-risk technology intersected to shape the decision to launch the Challenger, which exploded on Jan. 28, 1986.

Vaughan spoke with Salon about the parallels she saw with the Columbia disaster, though she cautioned that it was much too early to say anything definitive about what happened to the space shuttle today.

From your research into the Challenger disaster, what are the first questions we should be asking about Columbia?

Two things, really: Their first priority in the case of an accident is to find out what happened, and then it is to find out why that happened. One of the lessons from the Challenger accident is that in investigating what happened and why it happened, you had to go beyond the technology and the technical failure to external circumstances that might have affected it. That's something that should be looked into: NASA's funding, how were decisions being made, did they have adequate resources, what were the kinds of pressures on the organization and did anything like that play a role in this catastrophe?

Second: I've been hearing so many conversations right now about how the space shuttle had been taken for granted and become routine again. One of the things that is clear and had always been clear about the space shuttle is that this is a very complex experimental vehicle. It is impossible to predict what's going to happen because they can't reproduce the effects of flight in space in the laboratory. It will always be experimental, but the public thinks that it is not, and apparently so do some of the higher-ups at NASA -- I heard that they were going to resurrect the Teacher in Space program, and put civilians in space again. Apparently that lesson has been forgotten.

What seems to be going on -- though admittedly this is pure speculation -- [is that] this incident really parallels what happened with Challenger. The engineers doing the risk assessments always kept in mind that this is risky; prior to every launch, they had a gut check, they felt nauseated and afraid. But the people that make political decisions seem to have once again lost contact with the fact that this is a risky operation, or they wouldn't have even been considering putting civilians aboard.

Do you think that the use of the space shuttle as a kind of ferry to take astronauts back and forth to the space station may have contributed to the sense that space shuttle flight is routine?

It was originally conceived as a "space bus" that would routinely fly people and equipment to a space station. That was the original plan, and it's now fulfilling that plan. But that's a hard question to answer. Anything where you have repeated job work tends to become routinized to a certain extent. Aspects of it are very standardized -- and especially at NASA, what happens during an orbit, how the shuttle lands, is part of a system that is heavily regulated by rules and decision-making guidelines that are designed to be as safe as possible. The effect that those rules can have on individuals was startlingly obvious in the Challenger case -- the fact that people went by the rules gave them a sense of security; even the people who were most aware of the propensity for failures and things going wrong also became desensitized to the dangers. I would say that the astronauts would be the most likely to be continually aware of those dangers.

The people who are closest to the failure possibilities are the people for whom the risk is most salient -- the engineering crews, the astronauts. One of the managers that I interviewed after the Challenger disaster said, "It is a scary enough thing to start up the engines on the test range in Huntsville, Ala. -- it shakes the earth all the way down to Birmingham -- let alone with live people sitting on top of those engines." It's the people who make the political decisions who are most desensitized. Otherwise they wouldn't even think of saying, "Let's reinvigorate the Teacher in Space program."

Preliminary reports say that the heat tiles being used by the Columbia were of a new kind that had not been used before, and that there was evidence of debris or tiles falling off at launch.

They see tiles fall off in every mission. At the time I was doing research, there were about 200,000 heat tiles over one orbiter; you can visually imagine them like shingles on a roof. But imagine the forces of pressures of space flight. They always lose heat tiles -- that in itself isn't a serious thing. This morning, there was a concern about a large piece of foam insulation, it came off the external tank -- which is jettisoned -- there was concern that that foam piece might have done some damage.

But it's way too early to know what happened. You can't really speculate at this time. The technology itself is too complex -- engineers use a fault tree analysis, they treat each part of the shuttle as a potential source of failure to figure out what happened. This takes a long time. Meanwhile there is a hunger for information to explain the unexplainable.

In your book, you note that at the time of the Challenger failure, NASA was under heavy political pressure and was in danger of having its budget cut, and that some of these tensions may have contributed to the decision to go ahead with the launch. Can you provide any context about NASA's current political position?

I can only tell you one specific thing that is a constant between the Challenger and this one: the fact of budgetary constraints. During the Apollo program, NASA was very heavily funded, they were given carte blanche, it was truly an R&D program. When Apollo ended, during the Vietnam War, it was because there wasn't enough money to continue it. NASA tried to come up with another program, a new mission, and the space shuttle program was born at that time, but met with a lot of negativism from Congress. Their original design had to be compromised. "Instead of the Cadillac, we got a camel" was one quote at the time.

The shuttle program then got approved by Congress, on the provision that the shuttles would carry "payloads." That word has extraordinary significance -- scientific experiments, missions for the Department of Defense. The idea was that if there were a certain number of launches a year, it would be partially self-supporting. The initial proposal was 65 missions a year, which was completely mythical. NASA was always underfunded, there was always pressure to launch, and their funding has never met their needs.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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