Recommended reading: an inside story of the loss of space shuttle Columbia

This week, January 16, is the 10th anniversary of the last launch of last launchspace shuttle Columbia. If you’re interested in knowing what happened at NASA leading up to that launch and what happened in Houston during the flight, read Wayne Hale’s Blog. Wayne is retired from NASA now after a 32-year career that saw him rise from flight controller to flight director to posts within the space shuttle program hierarchy and at NASA Headquarters, including Space Shuttle Program Manager after the loss of Columbia and her crew.

Start with his August 14, 2012 entry and read forward in time: he carefully and colorfully sets the stage, introduces the players and fills in shuttle program background; he doesn’t retreat into engineering jargon; he offers his recollections of the most difficult time in the professional lives of many of the people who make up America’s human spaceflight program and doesn’t spare himself from a close look. He writes of “The Tyranny of Requirements” and the warnings that were plainly there in the two previous flights (for any who could see them), of “Counting Down to Disaster” while “Working on the Wrong Problem.”

As someone who worked at Columbia crewNASA then and now, I’ve found his essays both moving and instructive; I don’t know where he’s going with the story exactly, but I’m eager to read each new installment. I can explain to you what happened to that vehicle as it rose to orbit 10 years ago, and what tore it apart and killed its crew as it came home 16 days later, but Wayne’s point of view on what led up to those events—what caused them, what was responsible—is unparalleled in its accessibility and honesty.

In 2002 I thought we were paying the right level of attention to the shuttle. I thought I was paying the right level of attention to the shuttle. I was a Flight Director. I was also a husband and a father and active in my community. I thought I could do it all.

I was wrong.

Later on, I will write about the MLK three day weekend that cost us a crew just because we took three days off. But how can you know in advance where the proper balance is between work and life when you work at extreme risk?

While I can’t cite specific studies, my observation of several major NASA projects that have gotten in trouble over the years shows a high correlation with new, added, late, or poorly defined requirements which caused technical issues, increased the costs, and delayed the schedule. Put simply, a good program manager has got to have the gumption to just say no to changes in requirements – even when they are really good ideas.

In the end, I am convinced that the “relentless budget reduction pressures” were a major cause of the Columbia accident that cost us a crew and an orbiter. Not the only cause, but a major cause.

So where do you draw that line, between prudent and acceptable expenses and extravagance? What do you do when you depend on a vehicle that just flat costs more to fly than you can afford?

The rest of the story is coming soon, but you can get caught up now: the story of space shuttle Columbia on  Wayne Hale’s Blog is worth the effort.

What fools these mortals be

Somebody (Albert EinsteinRita Mae Brown?) said the definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  Well, I admit I’m as crazy as the next guy.

Although I know better, I subscribe to the (one and only) Houston daily newspaper, and I take the sports section to work to read at lunch.  Last Friday there was a throwaway sentence in Houston’s Leading Information Source’s game story on the previous night’s Astros’ embarrassing loss to contest with the Mets: “…and a four-base error on right fielder Hunter Pence opened the way for the Mets to push across three unearned runs in [the] eighth.”

Four-base error?  Interesting; I wonder what happened?  But I had to keep wondering, because there was no further mention of the event in that story.  Nothing; it seemed an odd thing to overlook.  When I got home later in the day I clicked on a Yahoo! Sports headline about a “Little League homer” in the majors and noticed a familiar brick-colored jersey in the picture: Pence had turned a lazy pop-up down the line into a home run for a guy playing his first game in nine months!  Here, see for yourself.

There are subjective editing decisions to be made at several stops along the way on every story in every paper; I get that.  In this instance I don’t know if the writer failed by not bothering to explain this one truly unusual thing that occurred and the desk in Houston didn’t notice the omission, or if the desk noticed but failed to send the story back for a rewrite; or, if the writer did write it up but the desk failed by making a really poor choice of what to cut to make the story fit the hole.  (Let’s not even consider the possibility that someone made an editorial decision to low-profile the thing so as not to embarrass the player or the team.)

Why was I expecting even a competent recap of the game from this newspaper?  Because I am a fool, it appears.

But I am not one of the fools that the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick thinks local television stations are trying to attract with their newscasts.  He’s writing specifically about the local stations in New York, but I’ve seen enough local TV news around the country to say that his criticism applies pretty damn much everywhere.  His modest proposal: “What would happen if one of these newscasts surrendered the race to attract fools and went after those disenfranchised viewers who would tune to a local newscast for news, the real stuff? What’s the worst that could happen?”  Check out some of his quick and easy steps to stop dumbing-down the broadcast by cutting out a few things, like:

1. Lead our winter/summer newscasts with hysterical word that winter/summer weather is here, with more winter/summer weather expected until the spring/fall. We will no longer, during our weather reports, suggest what kind of clothing to wear when it’s cold or hot.

4. All promos for network primetime shows will be seen in advertising and promos around the news, and not within the news, as if it were news. We have too much respect for our viewers and our profession to be in on such a credibility-killing compromised game.

5. Our reporters and anchors will be hired based on their ability to credibly gather, investigate and literately report the news, and no longer on the basis of beauty, sex-appeal, ethnicity and race. That’s right, the ugly will be given a fair shot. And no more “see these?” cleavage will be displayed by our reporters, not even during weather reports.

7. Our anchors will not engage in forced chit-chat after every report, a transparently phony formula to promote folksiness and trust. Tragedies will stand as self-evident, no need for our anchors to tell us that the news just seen was “Sad news” followed by the other anchor’s, “Very sad news, indeed.”

9. We will not send reporters to provide live reports while standing outside a closed bank that was robbed 20 hours earlier. Unless the robbers are still inside.

The worst that could happen?  We’re all stuck with the same drivel we’ve got now, and I’ve still got something to complain about!