The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

radar image of the Pentagon
After the Challenger investigation was completed, debris was lowered into an abanonded missile silo and sealed up. Rather than burying such items, though, a case can be made for publicly displaying and learning from them.(credit: NASA)

Remembering and learning

Sometime very early in the Columbia accident investigation, Admiral Hal Gehman, the chairman of the investigation board, reportedly held up a copy of the Challenger accident investigation report. It was one of the first things he read after being named to lead the investigation. “This is not the kind of report we are going to write,” he told the staff.

Late in the investigation I had a conversation with an Air Force officer who was working on the crew mortality part of the investigation. The officer told me how the small group working on that issue had taken a completely different approach than the Challenger investigation. The Challenger report had included no information on crew mortality. That information did not leak out until a year or so later, leading to charges of a coverup at NASA. The Columbia investigators were doing it differently. They had run a more formal crew mortality investigation, and had written a section of the final report on the subject. He explained that when the Air Force lost an aircraft, the cause of mortality was included in the report because it was vital for improving safety. If an ejection seat or other safety device failed to save a crewman’s life, people needed to know that so it could be fixed. The same was true for the astronauts.

There is always some hand-wringing about whether NASA is paying sufficient attention to its failures. There are never any satisfying answers to this question.

Two years after the Columbia report was issued I gave a talk on it in Germany to a general audience. After I was done I took questions and one of the first questions was about why the report did not mention how the astronauts had died. What were we hiding, the questioner wanted to know? The question was a bit of a surprise and I responded by explaining that the report did include a section on the final moments in the crew cabin, that it went much farther than the Challenger report had, and that such information was limited because once the power was lost, so was the data. The only information that was kept out of the report was the pathology data, and the investigation board did not believe it was necessary to publicly release that information. However, it was known by the people who could use that information for things such as the design of safety systems. However, I was still struck by the fact that despite the fact that the Columbia investigation had sought to be more open and had a reputation for independence, there were still people who were suspicious.

By coincidence, America’s three tragic space accidents all occurred on dates relatively close to each other—the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, the Challenger on January 28, and the Columbia accident on February 1. So this week is naturally the time when people associated with the space program reflect on these accidents and what we have learned from them and how they can teach us. There is always some hand-wringing about whether NASA is paying sufficient attention to its failures. There are never any satisfying answers to this question. Certainly after Apollo 1 NASA engineers thought that they were paying sufficient attention to safety. Certainly after Challenger NASA thought that they were paying sufficient attention to safety. And certainly now the people at NASA who keep the shuttle flying think that they are conscious of the dangers of spaceflight.

But there is no way to know for sure.

Whenever there is an anniversary of one of these accidents, family members hold a memorial service to talk about the astronauts who died. NASA officials and others participate in these ceremonies. But the events are fleeting and primarily serve an emotional purpose. Although they help remind people of the dangers of spaceflight, there is no clear connection to current activities and the need to remain vigilant and attentive to the risks. There should be a better means of using these tragedies for good.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC has always had a dual mission of both memorializing and educating. There is a natural tension between these two missions—should the museum simply put an aircraft up on a pedestal and praise it, or should the aircraft be placed in a larger exhibit that explains the context that it was used in?

The museum is filled with the icons of American spaceflight: Friendship 7, the Apollo 11 capsule, the X-15, SpaceShipOne. Perhaps it is time that it include examples of the failures of American spaceflight too—wreckage from the Apollo 1, Challenger, and yes, even Columbia. After the Challenger accident, NASA buried the wreckage in a missile silo, as if it was hiding its mistake. The agency took a different approach with Columbia, using the debris in a forensics training program to teach others how to perform accident analysis. The agency has changed its approach to how it responds to these accidents, and maybe it is time for American society to change its approach as well.

Context for such an exhibit would be important—what is needed is not a memorial, but a tutorial. Rather than simply displaying the wreckage, the museum could display the wreckage in the context of the investigations themselves. Show the tagged and numbered portions of the Apollo 1 capsule. Show the enhanced launch photos of Columbia with the telltale smoke emerging from the side of the solid rocket booster. And show the sensor data recorder from Columbia that was recovered from the Texas mud and proved so important in reconstructing the final moments of Columbia’s reentry.

Another context could be the difficulties and complexities of spaceflight engineering, and the fact that oftentimes engineering requires spending large amounts of money simply to demonstrate that something does not work. Admiral Gehman regularly remarked how the Columbia investigation had spent a lot of money simply proving that some things had not been factors in the accident. That is not a story that many people know or understand.

Such an exhibition would not need to focus solely on human spaceflight and the notable accidents. For instance, show the testing of the experimental DC-X rocket that was flown successfully numerous times before a relatively simple failure of a landing gear caused the vehicle to topple over and burn. (Whatever happened to the DC-X wreckage? Does any of it still exist?) And show the footage of the pieces of foam being fired at Space Shuttle tiles to determine how much damage a high velocity impact from a low density object could cause. At a time when criminal forensic shows are so popular on television, an exhibition on technical forensics investigations could resonate with the public.

At a time when criminal forensic shows are so popular on television, an exhibition on technical forensics investigations could resonate with the public.

Of course, such an exhibit would not be easy to produce. It is fraught with all kinds of political risks. Family members may oppose displaying the wreckage or want to approve the script. NASA officials may object to any exhibition that focuses on the agency’s embarrassments as opposed to its triumphs. Exhibitions cost money, and corporate sponsorship may be impossible to obtain. Developing an effective script for such an exhibit might be too difficult in a politicized climate where a whisper from a NASA official to the right member of Congress could kill the entire plan.

But compared to yet another memorial service, which is fleeting and forgotten and serves little purpose beyond salving the emotions of a few people, an exhibition of the costs and challenges of spaceflight at the nation’s premier aviation and space museum could influence a far larger audience and have much more lasting impact. Such an exhibition would make it harder for NASA to forget its past. It would make it less likely that members of the public would suspect conspiracy and coverup. And it would demonstrate how spaceflight is hard. It will not eliminate ignorance, of course, but done right, it can certainly help educate and enlighten and make people think. And that is what a museum is supposed to do.

It would not be easy to do, and might even be impossible. But at the very least, it is worth starting a discussion.