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Performance Anxiety

The report from the commission investigating the space shuttle Columbia accident is a classic autopsy of workplace delusion. It’s not just that NASA played self-defeating budget and bureaucratic games, management at the space program consistently deluded itself about whether the shuttle was safe to fly — and whether NASA even knew whether the shuttle was safe to fly. NASA bosses told themselves they had a safety system, therefore the system must be safe. Who hasn’t been in a meeting like that?

But for a truly chilling journey into how fragile and flawed America’s space ship is, read this story from the Orlando Sentinel from 10 days ago.

The Sentinel, NASA’s home-town newspaper, went back and analyzed every “anomaly report” from every single one of 113 space shuttle flights. The Sentinel found:

  • Bolts that hold the shuttle upright on the pad before launch often don’t release at “blast off.” The shuttle’s thrust yanks them out of the concrete launch pad.
  • On almost every flight, critical pods of orbital maneuvering jets have to be shut down because they don’t fire correctly. Actually, they get clogged with gunk.
  • The space shuttle uses wiring that the military has banned because it short circuits, and that wiring has caused the shut down of engine control computers, in flight, on the space shuttle. But the wiring has not been replaced.

It’s the kind of performance that makes you amazed at the complexity of space travel, amazed that the ships do routinely get up and back safely, and sad at the state of our commitment to space exploration.

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