Here is a chilling story of how the best engineering and design can go horribly wrong in the face of test after test. Wayne Hale relays this story about how Space Shuttle Discovery was nearly lost after a complete redesign and safety overhaul. Highly recommended – Anthony

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April 18, 2012 3:18 pm

Put me in mind of the de Havilland Comet.

Martin A
April 18, 2012 3:44 pm

I find it a perplexing contrast between the pure professionalism of NASA’s spacecraft engineers and the attitude of some of their staff involved in climate studies.

April 18, 2012 3:49 pm

“When the solids light, you are going somewhere, hopefully to orbit.”

April 18, 2012 3:50 pm

It is a strange contrast between this intensely emotional account, and the dismissive, even derisive public attitude of NASA at the time of Columbia, to anyone who even suggested they check the possibility of a problem with the foam.

Keith Pearson, Formerly bikermailman, Anon No Longer
April 18, 2012 3:52 pm

After reading the whole article at his site, I read a couple of his other posts. One dealt with his meeting with the *cough* Honorable Sheila Jackson Lee, and he very politely stated how she just wasn’t understanding him, so he changed gears to mention how NASA does great work with jobs and the kiddies. I was quite tempted to ask if she had enquired whether the Shuttle was going to fly to Mars and retreive the flag the Apollo astronauts left. Mr. Hale’s site seems a bit more serious crowd, so as Archie Bunker would say, I stifled myself.

Keith Pearson, Formerly bikermailman, Anon No Longer
April 18, 2012 3:54 pm

Oh, great read, and thanks for sharing, Anthony!

TG McCoy (Douglas DC)
April 18, 2012 3:57 pm

“Fate is the Hunter”. Thanks, Anthony…

April 18, 2012 4:18 pm

I reached a sad conclusion from this. Krautheimer said the other night that the Discovery flight over DC was funeral flight for the US space activities. Others, say, no…we’ll go with the private sector.
I don’t think so. Too risky, complicated to stake the future of space travel on the private sector. CK said we’ll have to beg rides from the Russians/Chinese. Maybe, for a while. But, not over the long term. No one will be in space in the long term (aside from un-manned vehicles)….too costly, too complex, too risky

April 18, 2012 4:21 pm

Wayne Hale concludes: “You see, this is how I found out that we were never really as smart as we thought we were. Maybe that is a lesson that applies to you, too.”
Boy oh Boy, does it ever! I have a big, fat ego, and this mean, old world has left it with more holes than a pin cushion, and more deflated than a rim with no tyre!
I think anyone who has ever attempted to forcast the weather has seen had their own short-comings made especially obvious. If you don’t believe me, try to predict the weather yourself. Eating crow is a common diet of weathermen. I think this is what makes the antics of Hansen and Mann especially infuriating. They have no inkling of what the word “humble” means.

Scottish Sceptic
April 18, 2012 4:49 pm

How the same organisation can have people as good as this guy who openly admits when he was wrong, who worked hard to correct the actual cause of the problem and not cover them up … and then you have Hansen. For whom phrases like “economical with the truth” and words like “coverup” spring to mind.
Hale … someone whose openess gives me the highest confidence …. in a situation when the risks are real and substantial.
Hanson … someone for whom I have absolutely no respect, someone who I believe hides and distorts the truth and someone I feel makes assertions for which there is zero correlation with the truth … i.e. I feel the truth and what hansen says are two independent variables.
The real pity, is that it only takes one idiot to bring down an organisation. Only one charlatans to ruin its reputation. So, for all Hale says, he is tarred with the Hansen brush… and if NASA permits even one person like Hansen, then it doesn’t really care about quality, and that is enough to damn the whole operation.

Timothy Sorenson
April 18, 2012 4:50 pm

Unfortunately, there has been a series of ‘enviromental’ issues that have led to billions of dollars of losses and possibly even life:

April 18, 2012 4:54 pm

Probably the most important lesson one learns as they change from a child to an adult —
You are not as smart as you think you are, and things you believe may not be true.
Adults figure this out some who never get past their teenager stage do not.

David Larsen
April 18, 2012 5:00 pm

When I worked in LA as a regional vice president for a large Native American consulting firm, I remember I had two accounts that used to build parts for the shuttles and NASA. Harvey Hewin was a breed Cherokee and made nuts and bolts for the shuttles. All QPL, quality products listed meaning every bit and piece had to be test individually for strength and integrity. Chuck Owen used to make the fiberglass molded parts for the interior of the shuttles also. Awesome!

April 18, 2012 5:03 pm

The shuttle was a disaster waiting to happen from the get-go. Manned ships using solid fuel boosters that couldn’t be shut down if there was a problem, no escape mechanism, fragile heat shield, crew compartment mounted right next to the fuel tanks. Notice that the Air Force backed out of it and used their own launch systems. Brave men and women lost their lives because of a bureaucracy that had become more interested in it’s own survival and expansion than its original mission. (Hansen for example). Consider that no lives had been lost during any mission for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo when space flight was new and operating in the unknown. Consider what the head of NASA (James Fletcher) promised for the Shuttle (mulitple flights per month low cost) and what we got. The real story of the Shuttle is going to be a sordid one, but thats for another time. Let’s toast those who looked to the stars and hope for a rebirth of space exploration with the new pioneers like Space X.

Rhoda Ramirez
April 18, 2012 5:10 pm

Caleb: Sure they know what ‘humble’ means: It’s how others should approaching them.

April 18, 2012 5:27 pm

Unbelievable. Some of you just can’t ever dial down the Hansen-Mann hate-oric.
Do you operate on a quota system?

April 18, 2012 5:33 pm

No, we just have a low tolerance for self-serving climate charlatans who have both front feet in the public trough.

Owen in Ga
April 18, 2012 5:38 pm

Too bad some of GISS’s money couldn’t have been diverted to the manned space program. Maybe, just maybe we would still be flying something and wouldn’t have to deal with proclamations of “Death Trains” from certain NASA faux scientists.

April 18, 2012 5:38 pm

rk says: “No one will be in space in the long term (aside from un-manned vehicles)….too costly, too complex, too risky”
Anyone involved in the industry would laugh their a$$ off at this silly statement!
With the retirement of the Shuttle (finally!), entire divisions within NASA no longer have turf to protect, this means that things that should have been funded 30 years ago – real science about mitigating the effects of micro-gravity on the well being of humans – will finally get the attention they deserve.
The shuttle was an albatross around the neck of human space flight, and those of us who have a passion for seeing progress in HSF are overjoyed to see it come to an end. Wayne Hale is a hero of many, not for his experience working at NASA, but for his honest appraisals of NASA once he’d retired.

Owen in Ga
April 18, 2012 5:42 pm

@BarryW: We didn’t lose any on orbit in those programs, but the Apollo 1 launchpad fire certainly killed three fine men. Don’t mean to pick nits, but…

Paul Westhaver
April 18, 2012 5:47 pm

Martin A. My sentiments exactly!!
A perplexing contrast indeed! Engineers and applied physics types’ function is to make things work. Same with surgeons. They intervene for good and mostly get it right. These people generally aren’t guessing, hand waving and making loose associations. They have to know a great deal about the physical world for real and are among the smartest people alive.
Then we have the eco green population… and all of their psyche baggage. Never do they have to get anything right…to them it is all about intent, results don’t matter.
Why do we listen to greens?

Tom in Florida
April 18, 2012 5:52 pm

BarryW says:
April 18, 2012 at 5:03 pm
“Consider that no lives had been lost during any mission for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo when space flight was new and operating in the unknown. ”
Have you forgotten Apollo 1 and the deaths of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee?

April 18, 2012 5:55 pm

Although nothing of this magnitude involving lives, I have had the experience of working on technical problems where the “solution” didn’t quite explain the symptoms only to have the problem reoccur later, and then finally isolating the real cause of the problem. It’s a gratifying feeling when you finally understand the real cause and know the fix is the correct one. The lesson I’ve taken away from these experiences is to trust that little nagging feeling that lingers when the solution doesn’t fully explain the problem.

April 18, 2012 5:56 pm

As an ex-NASA-contractor, I can say with authority that Mann and Hansen are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to NASA in-house stupidity. However there is a big culture difference between NASA Research Centers and NASA Space Flight Centers. (The Space Flight Centers push the stupid folks out to the Research Centers.)
I lost all respect for the letters “PhD” during my tenure at NASA because I met too many idiots with those letters after their name.
Want better government? The key is Civil Service reform, imho. We need mandatory firings in the civil service, like they do at GE. Cull the bottom 2% every year.

April 18, 2012 5:57 pm

Wasn’t there an issue of where NASA was required to adhere to environmental standards thereby requiring them to use environmentally friendly replacement material (insulation?) that turned out to be faulty?

April 18, 2012 6:26 pm

@Smokey You and like-minded others have amply demonstrated what you think of any number of climate scientists in hundreds or thousands of threads.
But this post has nothing to do with AGW; the fact that Hansen works for NASA is coincidental – his work has little to do with the Space Shuttle program.
He’s also a government employee and an American.
Do you drag him into every discussion about government and the USA?
“Y’know, if we got rid Hansen and Obama, the economy would improve”
“Man, America would be #1 again if Hansen would shut up about global warming”

April 18, 2012 6:32 pm

Hell no I didn’t forget Grissom, White, and Chaffee and I didn’t forget the fact that we came close to losing some brave men during a number of missions. We even lost some on training flights. My point still stands. Highly trained men were never lost during a launch or on orbit in extremely dangerous and experimental rockets. We were told that the Shuttle was just a big space bus taking senators and teachers (remember Christa McAuliffe?) into space, and not the temperamental, fragile boondoggle that Fletcher and crew produced. What’s even worse is the follow on program, yet somehow a private company has managed to build their own launch system on a relatively minuscule budget.

April 18, 2012 6:38 pm

DMarshall says:
April 18, 2012 at 5:27 pm
“Unbelievable. Some of you just can’t ever dial down the Hansen-Mann hate-oric.
Do you operate on a quota system?”
We should not forget that it is Hansen who nets NASA 1.2 bn USD a year. Without the manipulation of the temperature record, this CAGW scare related money would not flow. Hansen sacrificed his scientific integrity to ensure funding for NASA.
Feel better now, DMarshall? And yes, I do think this is the motivation for Hansen.

April 18, 2012 6:42 pm

Matthew says:
April 18, 2012 at 5:56 pm
Want better government? The key is Civil Service reform, imho. We need mandatory firings in the civil service, like they do at GE. Cull the bottom 2% every year.

Let’s go with 10% for the first few years. Get the beast down to a manageable size.

April 18, 2012 6:46 pm

“When the solids light, you are going somewhere, hopefully to orbit.”

April 18, 2012 6:51 pm

DMarshall says:
April 18, 2012 at 6:26 pm
“Y’know, if we got rid Hansen and Obama, the economy would improve”
Highly likely.

April 18, 2012 7:07 pm


April 18, 2012 7:20 pm

There will always be risk/lose of life in manned space flight,whether using our current technology or future warp drives.But it is the bravery and unrelenting curiousity of the men and women who crew these flights that show the best of homo sapiens. Per Ardua Ad Astra.

April 18, 2012 7:48 pm

@Owen in Ga says:
And some very close calls:
Mercury, when Glenn deorbited with a heatshield that gave faulty telemetry, could have well been that the heatshield was loose and the airbag behind it was inflated. Not a good way to do a re-enty.
Gemini 6, first launch fizzeled out after a 1 sec leaving the Titan-rocket standing freely on the pad. They succesfully launched the next day. But it could well have been that the rocket toppeled over in one great fireball. However their first rendevous target, the Agena did blow up during launch into orbit,
Gemini 8, a failing thruster on the Gemini caused near-fatal tumbling of the craft, Amstrong saved themselves and the manned space program by aborting the mission.
Gemini 9, another failed rendevous with an Agena. EVA almost ended in disaster when astronaut’s face plate fogged over; barely able to return to spacecraft.
Apollo 13, exploding oxygen tank, that was a very close call and it is thanks to engineering and solid thinking out of the box by people on the ground and in the capsule that the crew made it home alive.
Shuttles, One landed with a fire onboard because of a leaking hydraulic pump. STS-87 Loss of external tank intertank foam results in over 100 hits on orbiter heat shield, STS-27 took even over 700 hits. Foam was always an issue. A scrubbed launch saved a crew because it was only then that they found a jammed SSME pump. The SRB O-rings where on several flights very close to failure.
Still I would not hesitate to step on board 🙂

April 18, 2012 7:58 pm

“Manned ships using solid fuel boosters that couldn’t be shut down if there was a problem”
The last thing you wanted with a space shuttle launch was to shut the engines down ten seconds into the flight; if that happened you died and probably took the launch pad with you. Rockets and wings really don’t go together because you want to be able to reorientate yourself to land on a runway if something goes wrong, and the SRBs at least ensured that if you got off the pad and they didn’t fail you’d be high enough to bail out.
“Consider that no lives had been lost during any mission for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo when space flight was new and operating in the unknown. ”
The shuttle killed its crew about one time in sixty. None of those vehicles flew anywhere near as often, and the Apollo 13 crew only survived by luck; if I remember correctly one of the control panel gauges failed and that led to stirring the oxygen tanks more often to ensure correct pressure. The stir which caused the explosion had originally been planned to happen when the crew were on the Moon; had the original flight plan been followed, they would still be up there today.
Apollo also had at least one parachute failure, was struck by lightning which caused serious concerns about whether the parachutes would work, had engine shut-downs during launch (again, Apollo 13 came within a second or two of structural break-up before one engine shut down) and dumped toxic fuel vapour into the capsule during splashdown on one flight. There were probably other incidents I’ve forgotten.
With hindsight the shuttle was not a good design, but let’s not exaggerate the safety record of earlier vehicles.

Mac the Knife
April 18, 2012 8:32 pm

Thank You, for your service to the Shuttle program and your crucial judgement and guidance as mankind continued its toddling steps to move into space!
Working for McDonnell Douglas Astronautics in the mid 80’s, I supported some engineering aspects of materials/hardware procurement for the high pressure gas regulators on the Orbital Maneuvering Systems (OMS) of the Shuttles. My coworkers and I shared the physical pain and grief for the people who perished, as well as for the struggles to identify the true root causes of the problems and apply the right corrective actions that could make our orbiters reliable and truly reusable. Our hopes and our hearts rode with every Shuttle launch, because we very much wanted to be a part of taking mankind into space.
I was just reflecting on those launches and some of the characteristic communications associated with them. Shortly after the Shuttles passed through ‘max Q’ at about 100,000 ft (pardon my rusty recollections, if this isn’t quite right.), Houston Control would announce “Discovery, you are ‘go’ for throttle up on main engines.” The typical reply was “Roger Houston, Discovery is ‘Go’ for throttle up on main engines.” followed shortly after by “Houston, Discovery is showing main engines at 103%.” Finally, the call would come back from Houston “Discovery, you are ‘Go’ for Orbit!”
‘You are Go for orbit!’ So much hard work by the entire Shuttle team to bring it to that perfect moment, with the held breath and the hopes of our Nation awaiting just those simple but so marvelously powerful words: GO FOR ORBIT! It still makes my skin prickle, just thinking about it again!
Sincerely, Thank You!

April 18, 2012 9:02 pm

I’d like to just focus on the great work by the people at NASA. Sadly, I can’t.
Let’s apply the same lesson to our leaders who have made some very bad decisions regarding NASA policy. We could have had a Moon base by the end of this decade. We could have had a serious manned space program. Instead the geniuses in this Administration chose to go to Mars and asteroids by commercial bus. It will take decades if it ever happens. And most likely radiation will kill the astronauts within weeks of launch if we actually tried to go.
The Administration’s NASA plan is purely political. It sounds good to some voters perhaps, but it clearly undercuts our ability to retain leadership in space exploration. Moreover, I’m afraid our Martian SUV has a low probability of getting placed on the surface intact, so our unmanned programs are similarly at risk. They are being cut regardless.
We spent $1.3 trillion more than we took in this year, and we couldn’t find a way to properly fund NASA?!! That tells you they don’t care about keeping America strong or proud. I’m no fan of Romney, but the current band of radical losers has to go.

TG McCoy (Douglas DC)
April 18, 2012 9:42 pm

Have a friend who worked as an engineer for the US Navy at China Lake.One of the
things he worked on was the Shuttle escape system. As he put it: “The envlope for the
use of the system would be covered by the postage stamp”. The Russians use ejection seats…

April 18, 2012 9:54 pm

I’m no engineer but this story leaves me wondering
If the tank caused the foam to come off,does that mean that foam was coming off in previous flights and nobody noticed?
He says they worked feverishly to remove foam on foam wherever we could, minimize it where it could not be eliminated, and the following July we were ready to try again.
Didn’t they do that after the tragedy,why not?
Why were there no cameras on the heat shield before the tragedy?
That should have been one thing that the astronauts were able to check,it’s a pretty big safety concern.
Looks like it came down to cost cutting or complacency to me.

April 18, 2012 9:58 pm

What can be done, will be done.
Given only the assumption that humans survive as a race long enough, we will populate the entire galaxy. Risk and complexity are not really factors in the long run. That is why it is safe to say we are alone.

April 18, 2012 10:04 pm

I grew up in the house of a Titan engineer. I remember my father talking of early Shuttle designs in about 1974 +/- 1 where he said they were figuring they would loose 1 in 100 flights. I bet that figure is buried somewhere in Avation Week archives. In my imagination, loss was probably more likely to be a abort divert after 1 or 2 main engine failures. A divert never happened.

April 18, 2012 10:42 pm

“The Russians use ejection seats…”
The shuttle originally had ejection seats. They weren’t much use because they could only be provided for the crew on the upper deck and would have thrown them into the engine exhaust if the engines weren’t shut down before they were used. Worse than that, it required building a space vehicle with hatches designed to rapidly and explosively separate in order to get the seats out in an emergency; that’s not very safe for a vehicle that spends perhaps two minutes in a flight regime where the seats might be useful and two weeks in a regime where using them would kill everyone on board.
There was simply no way to get the crew out safely during launch without adding so much weight that you would have little, if any, payload left (e.g. by providing a separation system and parachutes for the entire crew compartment).
“If the tank caused the foam to come off,does that mean that foam was coming off in previous flights and nobody noticed?”
They noticed: even on STS-1 the crew reported large amounts of foam coming off the tank during launch, and numerous missions returned with heat-shield damage from foam hits. But few people expected a large enough piece of foam to come off at the wrong point in the launch and hit the weakest part of the heat shield at a high enough velocity to break it.
“Why were there no cameras on the heat shield before the tragedy?”
Every kilogram of mass you add to the tank is a kilogram of useful payload you can’t carry into orbit, and there were many unlikely catastrophic failure modes on the shuttle which didn’t happen. If you put hardware on board to detect all of them then you wouldn’t have any payload left.

April 18, 2012 10:51 pm

Very interesting, thanks Anthony. Interesting that in the comments Wayne says that the discontinued use of freon was not causing an adhesion problem with the foam. That was a riveting subject at the time.

April 18, 2012 11:04 pm

TG McCoy (Douglas DC) says: April 18, 2012 at 9:42 pm
I also worked at China Lake on that same program! By any chance was your friend’s name Hugh?

April 18, 2012 11:04 pm

DR says:
April 18, 2012 at 5:57 pm
Wasn’t there an issue of where NASA was required to adhere to environmental standards thereby requiring them to use environmentally friendly replacement material (insulation?) that turned out to be faulty?

Yup. It regularly broke off during liftoff and whacked the tiles.
“As recently as last month [June 2005], NASA had been warned that foam insulation on the space shuttle’s external fuel tank could sheer off as it did in the 2003 Columbia disaster – a problem that has plagued space shuttle flights since NASA switched to a non-Freon-based type of foam insulation to comply with Clinton administration Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
“Before the environmentally friendly new insulation was used, about 40 of the spacecraft’s 26,000 ceramic tiles would sustain damage in missions. However, Katnik reported that NASA engineers found 308 ‘hits’ to Columbia after a 1997 flight.
“One hundred thirty-two hits were bigger than 1 inch in diameter, and some slashes were as long as 15 inches.”

April 19, 2012 3:10 am

Just to let you know, Wayne Hale is scrubbing comments from his blog regarding the EPA’s role in the ET foam problems as well as SRB problems. I was working at KSC as a Tank/Booster Test Conductor during the nineties, and posted a detailed chronicle of the change in solvents and blowing agents used on the tank and boosters, as well as the switch from asbestos-bearing SRB joint putty. My comment never made it through Hale’s moderator. Another commenter asked:

I remember a report that the original adhesive was not used because of the CFCs used.
And furthermore the replacement adhesive was inferior to the original.
Is there any truth to that?
waynehale says:
April 19, 2012 at 3:48 am
No truth to it at all

I’m sorry, but I was there at KSC (where the actual work was) and Hale is mistaken.

April 19, 2012 7:17 am

The earliest shuttle-tanks had a thin metal skin over the insulation. They did away w/that at some point.
I don’t think it was worth the “savings”.

Coach Springer
April 19, 2012 8:04 am

I’m going to try and memorize this story as illustration of studying a problem to death from a specific viewpoint and looking at everything only to find out that everything looks differerent from an accurate viewpoint rather than the accepted viewpoint. This definitely applies to climate science and climate scientists. The degree of vigilance excercised by those identifying themselves as climate scientists regarding bias and alternate possiblities is lax and staggeringly so given the degree of “community” in which they knowingly operate.

April 19, 2012 9:49 am

beng… the tanks never had a thin metal skin over the insulation. They did, however, have white paint. They stopped painting them pretty early on in the program.
Re: cameras. One has to remember that the size and mass of cameras shrunk a lot from 1970’s when the shuttle was designed, til 2005 when they added several additional cameras to the orbiter, the SRB’s and the external tank.

April 20, 2012 6:06 am

Thanks Wayne and Anthony for a very interesting post.
It reminded me of the Challenger disaster and Richard Feynman’s skeptical role in investigating the causes of that sad tragedy….
“Chairman Rogers, a politician, remarked that Feynman was “becoming a real pain.” In the end the commission produced a report, but Feynman’s rebellious opinions were kept out of it. When he threatened to take his name out of the report altogether, they agreed to include his thoughts as [an appendix]”
Feynman’s 10 page comments are an interesting read and can be found here:
I love his concluding remarks:
“Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. … NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Eric Anderson
April 20, 2012 11:14 am

Yeah, I went over and spent quite a bit of time checking out Wayne Hale’s blog. Even bookmarked it in my favorites. Some interesting things and good to hear his perspective. I’m a space nut and follow space exploration pretty closely for a lay person, so any chance I get to read more on the topic I usually take.
Hale’s blogging approach, however, leaves much to be desired: deletes some comments without leaving a trace (they just disappear; he should strike and give a reason: OT, against policy, etc.), and many valid questions raised by commenters are simply blown off with terse remarks. It might appear he is struggling with a vast ego, but more likely he is just new to blogland and frustrated with how much time it takes to respond/moderate the threads. Frankly, he reminds me of my father a bit — old engineer type who actually does know a lot, has thought through the issues, and doesn’t tolerate fools lightly. Hale, like my father, is probably a great guy with a lot of knowledge to share. Unfortunately, his approach doesn’t really help the newcomers who are asking valid (albeit long-ago-resolved) questions and also comes across as a bit egotistical/dismissive, ironically part of what some have accused NASA management culture of over the years . . .

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