Remembrance Day, Challenger & NewSpace

The space shuttle Challenger explodes. (Credit: NASA)
The space shuttle Challenger explodes. (Credit: NASA)

“There was ice on the ship,” I said quietly to no one in particular.

I was standing in the hallway at work with some co-workers, watching the space shuttle Challenger explode over and over again on a television in one of the offices.

The pride of the American space program suddenly disintegrating on a perfectly sunny day. The lives of seven brave astronauts snuffed out. It was shocking and horrifying and memorizing all at the same time — a billion dollar aerial car wreck I couldn’t take my eyes off.

I had no inside knowledge about what had just happened. I had never even heard of an O-ring. But, the reports of the extreme cold at the Cape that morning — and video of massive icicles hanging from the pad — were unusual. It left me wondering. Why had they launched in those conditions? Was the shuttle robust enough to fly in that kind of weather?

It turns out it wasn’t. The months that followed saw one awful revelation after another about poorly designed solid rocket boosters, growing problems with the O-ring seals, inadequate efforts to address the design flaw, and the increasingly willingness of NASA to accept the risks involved.

The most infuriating revelation was that on the night before the flight, Morton Thiokol engineers were begging the space agency not to fly in those conditions but NASA did it anyway.  Seven lives lost, and for what?

They say that there are five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. NASA’s recklessness with the lives of its astronauts that day left me very angry for a long time. What the hell were they thinking?

I believe the answer to that question has its roots in the early 1970’s when the space shuttle was approved.

NASA had promised the equivalent of a reusable space truck that could regularly fly into orbit. It would be the cosmic equivalent of the legendary DC-3 aircraft. The agency commissioned a study by a company called Mathematica that showed the shuttle fleet would fly 50 times per year at an extremely low cost.

Those estimates were wrong. The shuttle proved to be much more expensive to operate and take much longer to turn around between flights than anyone ever anticipated. The doomed Challenger flight was the shuttle program’s 24th flight in just under five years of operation.

By January 1986, NASA felt it has overcome the initial problems of flying a complex new launch system. Challenger was the second of 14 missions planned for 1986. By 1990, the space agency was projecting it would fly 24 missions — twice per month.

In retrospect, the plan was flat out impossible. But, NASA’s rhetoric had overtaken reality. The space agency was trying to deliver on what it had promised rather than what it could realistically do.

In other words, officials had started to believe their own bullshit. Once that happens, the culture became toxic and efforts to address serious problems faced serious obstacles.

“My God, Thiokol,” shuttle manager Lawrence Malloy excclaimed. “When do you want me to launch — next April?”

Schedule had become king. Safety had been demoted.

There is a haunting aspect of the Challenger tragedy: even if the Thiokol engineers had won the argument, and the crew had flown safely on another day, and the fixes had been made to the O-rings, NASA was  probably still heading for a major disaster.

The space agency’s planned flight rate would have pushed a still raw and immature technology too hard without enough funding and resources.  The shuttle had too many flaws in it. Sooner rather than later, another shuttle crew would have paid the price.

Even after a stand down of 2.5 years, and all the improvements and upgrades made to the shuttles after the Challenger accident, and a retreat to an achievable flight rate, NASA still lost Columbia and its seven astronauts in 2003 due to damage caused by another known issue — foam shedding from the external tank.

As NASA marks Remembrance Day, its incumbent upon us to mourn not only the brave astronauts we lost on Challenger, Columbia and Apollo 1 but to understand why we lost them. NASA’s failures — and yes, its many successes — hold many valuable lessons that must be applied to our current efforts.

This is particularly true for the private NewSpace community now working on space tourism vehicles. Nowhere in the space industry is the gap between rhetoric and reality — between promises and deliverables — wider than in this segment of the industry.

In some quarters of NewSpace, there’s a real disdain for NASA. The space agency is seen as a hide-bound bureaucracy that has killed astronauts needlessly. It is bogged down with unnecessary rules that increase costs to absurd levels while doing to improve safety, people argue. The thinking is that NASA has little or nothing positive to teach the commercial industry.

I believe this is dangerous mindset. It’s based on the assumption that private companies will avoid the kinds of schedule and budget pressures that contributed to NASA’s failures. There’s a belief that market forces — the fear that an accident would put a company out of business — will keep excessive risk taking in check.

I have my doubts. Humans are fallible. Organizations are prone to group think. Profit motive can override safety concerns. And spaceflight is inherently dangerous.

In any event, NewSpace has a long way to go before it can prove its superiority to NASA, The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding. And NewSpace has produced very little of it.

After a brief spurt of activity in 2004 in which there were three successful suborbital flights, the industry has not flown another human in space in more than 11 years. (I’m not counting orbital Soyuz flights, which are government missions with non-professional astronauts aboard.)

The U.S. government has launched humans into space 179 times. NASA flew 166 missions, with the first two being suborbital. The X-15 program had 13 suborbital flights if we use the U.S. Air Force’s 50-mile boundary of space. (Two X-15 flights exceeded the internationally recognized 62-mile boundary.)

Three of those mission ended with the loss of the vehicle and crew: Challenger, Columbia and one X-15. A total of 15 people died in flight, with the three-man crew of Apollo 1 dying in a ground fire.

To date, NewSpace has had three suborbital flights that carried three pilots. One pilot died on another flight that was not intended to reach space. And three engineers died in a test stand explosion.

NewSpace has a lot to prove. That alone should keep the industry humble. As we mark Remembrance Day, we must also keep in mind that we are all fallible. And that we are all mortal.

  • windbourne

    “… The thinking is that NASA has little or nothing positive to teach the commercial industry. I believe this is dangerous mindset. …”

    So true. Personally, I am tired of seeing ppl blast NASA. It is somewhat, what caused Challenger. And there is no way that New Space will do a better job than NASA.

  • redneck

    Long term, I disagree with your last sentence. The poorly run companies will eventually fall by the wayside. Short term though I won’t argue.

  • Jeff2Space

    For me, commercial crew will be a huge milestone. But, only time will tell how successful commercial crew will be. My point is that commercial cargo and commercial crew is absolutely cheaper than a NASA developed alternative. NASA’s own studies prove that conclusively.

    The other evidence is Orion. Yes it is bigger than the commercial crew capsules and it is theoretically going to be more capable (paper vehicles are hard to compare). But, Orion is also taking far longer and far more money by comparison, even though it is based on prior CEV work.

  • Athelstane

    A good editorial.

    NewSpace is still a very positive and needed development, since commercial presence is essential to long-term exploitation and exploration of outer space. But it is still composed of human beings.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    It remains to be seen if Windbourne is correct. To those wedded to capitalism, private industry will always be superior to anything sponsored by the government. Market forces do not always favor quality (Beta was better than VHS) and helpful technologies can be buried for business and political reasons. We’ll see if the market can really do better, safer and less expensive.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Very insightful, Doug. There is plenty of money and plenty of ego driving New Space right now and I’m afraid that we are going to see more deaths in the future attributable to hubris.

  • windbourne

    Yes. It is amazing how good low regulated industries are. Look at GM, Ford, Audi, BMW, Mercedes VW, Lexus, Infiniti, Toyota, etc. Are. Why no deaths or recalls on them.

    Look, capitalism always has strengths. When true competition exists ( GOP has been killing it in America ), then you will see low costs, but you will still have issues. And even in highly regulated, you still get things like all the German companies massive cheating for ‘clean diesel’ even though it adds a great deal more health issues and cheated at the co2 that all claimed was important. And Toyota and GM have basically murdered ppl to save a penny per stock.

  • windbourne

    Safer, less expensive; pick 1.
    The only real reason BO and spacex are doing so well is because they do not have MBAs making massive salaries and options.

  • redneck

    Which is why I said long term. Short term, on single projects, and especially if it is a simple problem, commands work really well. Long term is when competition finds better ways in places that command systems often miss. Not always, but often. DVDs better than Beta perhaps?

  • redneck

    Safer and less expensive is an option with true competition.

  • redneck

    It appears that you are applying perfection as a standard. If that is the requirement, you might as well hide under a rock. You’re not getting zero risk short of the grave. Calling the auto industry low reg is not if conformance with reality.

    There will always be problems of some form. and the highly regulated auto industry is rife with them. You might consider the idea that the more repressive the regulation, the more lucrative it is to circumvent it. Illegal drugs for instance.

    There must be a balance between command (government incl regulations) and freedom in most of spaceflight. A total control scenario is potentially as disastrous as zero consequences for immoral behavior, and historically far more so.

  • Douglas Messier

    Thank you, Terry.

  • Douglas Messier

    Thanks.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I owned VHS myself but even DVD’s break down. I’m one of those people willing to sit back and see how things play out.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Safer needs to be a given – enforced by regulation if necessary. Competition is supposed to lower the price. If you are looking for some one to blame for high prices, just utter the word “greed” and start apportioning it as you wish. And maybe some of those low prices you like at SpaceX won’t last. As you yourself noted, you cannot run a mature corporation like a startup. Eventually, SpaceX and BO will have to be wage and benefit competitive with Lockheed, Boeing, Northrup Grumman and the other big aeronautics companies if they want to attract and keep talent.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I think that the problem is that we tend to start talking in extremes when we really need regulation to prevent the ill effects of pure capitalism while leaving the middle open for supply and demand economics. I don’t think that any of us would like a pure command economy such as in Soviet Russia or one seemingly devoid of regulation such as in post-Soviet Russia. 🙂 We need to define what is important (jobs, human life, etc) and tell private industry that they are free to function on a level playing field but it is government that makes the rules. For instance, how would our jobs picture look right now if companies that offshore their labor were prohibited from accessing the U.S. market? We also need to redefine “fiduciary duty” to include a duty to society as a whole and not just to shareholders. Shareholders may own the company but without the rest of us to run support industries or government services or even buy their products, the business fails.

  • redneck

    This is a subject I am quite passionate about, but this is the wrong forum for me to start ranting on and on.

  • duheagle

    You might better have substituted “Virgin Galactic” for “NewSpace” in this piece. NewSpace is a lot more than VG. I see neither much validity nor much point in tarring all of NewSpace with the brush of VG’s sundry derelictions and disasters.

  • duheagle

    Personally, I am tired of seeing ppl blast NASA.

    NASA is no more a monolith than is NewSpace. There are parts of NASA that still do excellent work and other parts that are eminently blastworthy. I see nothing wrong with blasting NASA when it is deserved.

    And there is no way that New Space will do a better job than NASA.

    In some ways, NewSpace has already done a better job than NASA. The development of Falcon, Dragon, Antares, Cygnus, Starliner and Dream Chaser are all examples of where NewSpace – and even OldSpace in one case – have done better than NASA in terms of bang for the buck. What else NewSpace may do better than NASA is still very much a work in progress, but I have no doubt there will be a lot more items on the list, say, five years hence.

  • windbourne

    And each of the new space items have had failures.
    I agree that NASA has issues on the inside. There is a bit of a rot that has set in by not allowing these ppl to succeed . i blame congress for that.
    But, to blame NASA as being worthless gets old to hear.

  • Douglas Messier

    No. These attitudes are more widespread than that.

  • ReSpaceAge

    I would fly on New Shepard but I would be never fly on virgin’s spaceship 2. Market forces force safety.

  • duheagle

    NASA isn’t worthless, but parts of it are. The fact that you find truthful statements to this effect unpleasant to hear does not affect their accuracy.

    NASA’s past accomplishments during the glory days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo will stand for all time. But, as the investment ads say, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

    Between the end of Apollo and the present, NASA has killed 14 more astronauts in preventable Shuttle accidents based on poor original design choices. Since Shuttle, Marshall Space Flight Center has also stillbirthed numerous programs intended to be post-Shuttle human spaceflight vehicles and is currently hard at work on what will, in all likelihood be yet another – SLS/Orion. By sucking up almost 20% of NASA’s total budget in doing so, MSFC is worse than worthless, it’s existence is actively injurious to the cause of opening space to human settlement. MSFC should be closed and NASA should be permanently enjoined from designing and building any more launch systems and manned vehicles.

  • duheagle

    To those wedded to capitalism, private industry will always be superior to anything sponsored by the government.

    To those wedded to statism, on the other hand, the doings of Mother State will always be superior to anything done by icky businesspeople. They will make endless excuses for NASA’s 35-years-and-counting record of failing to create any viable successor to Shuttle. “It’s not NASA, it’s Congress,” they say. So the serial failures of bureaucratic government are excused by reference to political government. But both will always be in the mix for any government program. It’s time to acknowledge that the problems are fundamental and structural. After better than a third of a century of continuous failure, the only ones unwilling to face long-obvious facts are those wedded to dysfunctional left-wing political ideologies.

    Market forces do not always favor quality (Beta was better than VHS)

    Yeah, that’s the claim by Beta partisans. The Beta picture quality was supposedly better and you could get more video onto a cassette – at least at first. The alleged quality edge was never apparent to me. In any event, Super-VHS succeeded the original VHS pretty quickly with improved picture quality and double, triple and quadruple record times vis-a-vis original VHS. There was even a compatible mini-cassette version of VHS for camcorders. Beta simply wasn’t as extensible a technology as was VHS. And right from the start Beta was always more expensive. The market got it right. Beta was a toad.

    and helpful technologies can be buried for business and political reasons.

    Yeah? Name one.

    When I was a boy the tinfoil hat brigades liked to spin two favorite yarns. One was about an alleged 200 mpg carburetor supposedly suppressed by The Oil Companies. The other was some mysterious, cheap secret elixir a couple ounces of which, when mixed with a gallon of water, could supposedly replace a gallon of premium gas. The bad guys were – wait for it, now – The Oil Companies.

    These days the stories are about miracle solar panels and breakthrough fusion reactors being suppressed by – all together, now – The Oil Companies. The lyrics may change to match passing fashions but the tune is always the same. And it’s been the same ever since the original Progressives got one of their own – Teddy Roosevelt – into the White House and colluded with John D. Rockefeller’s less successful competitors in the kerosene business to break up Standard Oil.

    You people need new material for your act.

  • duheagle

    Safer, less expensive; pick 1.

    False dichotomy. If “more reliable” is at least partly a contributor to “safer,” then modern, tiny solid-state accelerometers to trigger automotive air bags are both better and much cheaper than their mass-and-spring mechanical predecessors. Simultaneous advances in both cost and quality happen all the time, usually by changing what used to be considered “the rules” in some market. Competiton drives this process, not command-and-control central planning.

    The only real reason BO and spacex are doing so well is because they do not have MBAs making massive salaries and options.

    I would say it has a lot more to do with constant attention to engineering that doesn’t ignore either short-term or long-term costs. That, and the fact that SpaceX and BO are not yet publicly traded firms allows them to attract top talent at below market salaries by tossing in stock options in anticipation of major post-IPO paydays for those who stick around. If OldSpace firms can’t do likewise because their projected stock price appreciation isn’t impressive, that’s just the market rendering its merciless judgement on the laggards.

    But even assuming you were correct, SpaceX’s and BO’s alleged dearth of staff MBA’s can’t be because of a supply problem; there are plenty of newly minted MBA’s graduating every year. If these firms simply “fail” to hire people whose alleged skills are not generally a good match to their actual requirements while their old-line competitors fall by the wayside from having too many expensive and useless MBA’s on staff, whose fault is that? If you are smart, you deserve to win. If you act stupidly, you deserve to fail. The free market appears to agree and is rapidly sifting the wheat from the chaff.

  • duheagle

    Safer needs to be a given – enforced by regulation if necessary.

    That assumes the government has some way of determining, a priori, what is actually “safer.” I find that a highly debatable proposition. The government mandated sealed beam headlamps for motor vehicles based on experience with 40’s-era separate component headlamp technology. That pretty much put headlamp R&D into hibernation in the U.S. The Europeans and Japanese figured out ways to overcome previous drawbacks to separate component headlamps, sold their improved wares in their home markets and eventually forced a re-evaluation of “settled science” here as well.

    Competition is supposed to lower the price.

    It does. Why is it you seem to imply that this is a questionable proposition?

    The DoD launch services market saw rising prices from the time of ULA’s creation until SpaceX elected to go for a slice of the DoD launch pie. Since then, prices have moderated and declined even in advance of SpaceX actually winning any business in this newly competitive market. The price competition in the civilian launch services market is even more profound as SpaceX has actually participated in that market for several years.

    If you are looking for some one to blame for high prices, just utter the word “greed” and start apportioning it as you wish.

    I think the phrase “government intervention” has far greater explanatory value than “greed.” Perhaps the participants in state-sponsored corporate monopolies or cartels are actually greedier than those businesspeople content to make their way amid the hurly-burly of the market. I can think of no way to acquire objective data that would settle the issue. What is certain is that market competition always places severe restrictions on what the “greed” of participants is able to do to prices. When government puts its massive thumb on the scales, though, even the sky isn’t necessarily a limit.

    And maybe some of those low prices you like at SpaceX won’t last.

    No, I don’t expect they will. I expect them to get even lower.

    As you yourself noted, you cannot run a mature corporation like a startup.

    Not necessarily true. SpaceX is a long way from being a few guys in a garage but still has a very much startup approach to doing things. One could point to much older firms such as Amazon, Google and even Apple as additional counterexamples. I don’t think it’s any accident that all of these firms tend to be perennially dicing for the top spot on the corporate market cap lists. Not too awfully far down the road, SpaceX may well join them on the rarefied uppermost slopes of Market Cap Mons.

    The key to maintaining a startup-like corporate culture over the long haul is constant innovation, expansion of existing markets and creation of new ones. SpaceX, like its Silicon Valley high-tech predecessors, is doing such things in the space field, broadly construed. Its nominal competitors in the Jurassic Aerospace ghetto are doing none of these things. The only hope the legacy firms have is that Elon never decides to really become Tony Stark by taking an interest in weapons development.

    Eventually, SpaceX and BO will have to be wage and benefit competitive with Lockheed, Boeing, Northrup Grumman and the other big aeronautics companies if they want to attract and keep talent.

    As noted in a previous comment, so long as SpaceX and BO can keep their businesses and stock prices growing nicely – even once they are publicly traded – they can continue to operate pretty much as they have since inception into the indefinite future.

  • duheagle

    Yes. VG has dug themselves a considerable hole in the ground which they have to pretty convincingly climb out of before they even get back to ground level. Neither Blue Origin nor XCOR has a comparable self-inflicted foot wound.

  • duheagle

    I think that the problem is that we tend to start talking in extremes when we really need regulation to prevent the ill effects of pure capitalism while leaving the middle open for supply and demand economics.

    Sleep soundly, then. “Pure capitalism” is in no danger of breaking out anywhere in the world, particularly not in the United States.

    Statists always imagine regulation is the universal cure for all “ills” as they define them. Personally, I think a case can be made that an independent judiciary and tort bar have done a lot more to insure safety than all the alphabet soup bureaucracies that like to take credit.

    I don’t think that any of us would like a pure command economy such as in Soviet Russia

    Well, maybe Bernie Sanders would. He often complains about how hard it is for we poor consumers to make decisions amidst so much capitalist abundance. Under Sanders, all we would have available would be Red Guard deodorant, Victory Gin and Soviet-era Russian toilet paper. Oh yes, and after The Revolution, we would all eat strawberries and we would LIKE THEM!

    or one seemingly devoid of regulation such as in post-Soviet Russia. 🙂

    Present-day Russia isn’t exactly Galt’s Gulch. The one basic regulation in force seems to be, “Do anything we don’t like and we’ll kill you.”

    We need to define what is important (jobs, human life, etc) and tell private industry that they are free to function on a level playing field but it is government that makes the rules.

    Sounds good as a slogan but the devil, as always, is in the details. Jobs are important, sure, but in good Animal Farm fashion, it always seems that some jobs are more important than others. In general, the jobs of government workers and of private sector workers whose employers are big government contractors seem to be accorded more consideration than any others. These classes of jobs were certainly the priority when it came to Obama’s infamous $870 billion “stimulus package” back in 2009-2010. The relative real unimportance of these jobs to the health of the overall economy is well illustrated by observing that saving all these privileged jobs did nothing to prevent the general economy from remaining barely out of actual recession right down to the present.

    For instance, how would our jobs picture look right now if companies that offshore their labor were prohibited from accessing the U.S. market?

    Probably even worse than it presently does as was the case during Great Depression 1.0 when, in addition to most of the economic idiocy Obama has chosen to revisit, the U.S. also implemented the Smoot-Hawley Tariffs and cratered U.S. exports in the resulting trade wars with pretty much everybody else on the planet. Protectionism is like crack. The first high is incredible, but doesn’t last very long and then you’re stuck chasing after that great high again and never catching it. Meanwhile, all your teeth fall out.

    We also need to redefine “fiduciary duty” to include a duty to society as a whole and not just to shareholders.

    “Duty to society as a whole” is one of those gauzy, endlessly extensible left-wing feel-good memes like “social justice” that can always be stretched to cover whatever the favored cause du jour happens to be. “Fiduciary duty,” on the other hand, has a well-established and fairly stable legal meaning. We are a society based on laws rather than on one particular political persuasion’s idea of good intentions for a reason. Your favored alternative has been tried many times. Aggressively pursued, it always seems to wind up in tryanny and mass death. I am aware of no exceptions.

    Shareholders may own the company but without the rest of us to run support industries or government services or even buy their products, the business fails.

    Exactamundo my statist friend. No company exists in a vacuum. Commerce is based on peaceful, mutually advantageous exchanges among many entities. And those support industries have their own stockholders. The government services are paid for by taxes. The revenues of every market-based company depend upon sales.

    You’ve just described a free market economy. What you have not done is establish any rational basis for forcing individual companies to take an active hand in doing anything but rationally maximizing the returns to their shareholders.

  • duheagle

    I would be interested in what evidence, in the form of specific actions, or even just statements, you could cite to support your contention of rampant reckless hubris among NewSpace companies because I don’t see it. I hope you are not simply one of those reflexive statists who find even the most innocuous contention by a NewSpace firm that, yeah, we think we can do X or Y or Z better/cheaper than NASA to be intolerable lese majeste against the sacred cow that is NASA. NASA, like Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations,’ may have been quite the looker in youth, but has not aged well.

  • duheagle

    Given that NASA, for instance, is making noises about flying astronauts on the SLS-Orion EM-2 mission atop an untested Exploration Upper Stage, I’d suggest your search for hubris in human spaceflight is being conducted in the wrong place.

  • Doug Weathers

    If you do it right, safer is usually less expensive.

  • Douglas Messier

    If you read the post, I referred to “some quarters of NewSpace” and focused primarily upon the suborbital human spaceflight industry.

    You have read things into this post that are not there. The post is far from “tarring all of NewSpace” as you claimed. Nor was I referring specifically to Virgin Galactic.

    Now I have to respond to suspicions that I’m a “reflective statist.” Where does that come from? Why would you assume that?

    As to your question, I can cite public statements where people have demonstrated this attitude. I’ve also had private discussions with people I know in the industry.