A Purely Bureaucratic Reaction

Billy Beck alerted me to this article in The Atlantic Monthly on the investigation of the Columbia disaster. The author, William Langewiesche, is significantly more charitable to the NASA bureaucrats than I felt when I finished reading it. How insane is NASA culture? This says it all for me: the engineers are at the absolute bottom of the organizational totem pole.

...[T]he day after the launch, the low-level engineers at the Kennedy Space Center whose job was to review the launch videos and film were immediately concerned by the size and speed of the foam that had struck the shuttle. As expected of them, they compiled the imagery and disseminated it by e-mail to various shuttle engineers and managers—most significantly those in charge of the shuttle program at the Johnson Space Center. Realizing that their blurred or otherwise inadequate pictures showed nothing of the damage that might have been inflicted, and anticipating the need for such information by others, the engineers at Kennedy then went outside normal channels and on their own initiative approached the Department of Defense with a request that secret military satellites or ground-based high-resolution cameras be used to photograph the shuttle in orbit. After a delay of several days for the back-channel request to get through, the Air Force proved glad to oblige, and made the first moves to honor the request. Such images would probably have shown a large hole in the left wing—but they were never taken.

And why were those pictures never taken?

On the seventh day of the flight, January 22, just as the Air Force began to move on the Kennedy engineers' back-channel request for photographs, Linda Ham heard to her surprise that this approach (which according to front-channel procedures would have required her approval) had been made. She immediately telephoned other high-level managers in Houston to see if any of them wanted to issue a formal "requirement" for imagery, and when they informed her that they did not, rather than exploring the question with the Kennedy engineers she simply terminated their request with the Department of Defense. This appears to have been a purely bureaucratic reaction. (emphasis added)

Linda Ham, I hope this keeps you up at night for the rest of your days. I hope you awake sweating and shaking from dreams where seven people flame into plasma, deaths which you might have helped prevent were it not for your purely bureaucratic reaction.

Many otherwise sensible (L/l)ibertarians seem to have a soft spot for NASA, and defend it on various spurious grounds, such as the small proportion of the federal budget it consumes, or the supposed importance or utility of what they do. Read the whole article—when you see how trivial their mission was, the loss of these seven lives will seem even more outrageous.

NASA is not getting us into space, they're keeping us out of space. Don't believe the hype.

UPDATE: I sincerely regret the hateful comment I directed at Linda Ham above. Nothing I say or don't say is going to make any difference to Linda Ham's life, but I realize that the comment was pointless and mean. This is exactly the kind of behavior we need less of in the world. Don't be a jerk like me!

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This is somewhat unfair. I

This is somewhat unfair. I doubt that anything could have been realistically done to save their lives even if the extent of the damage had been known. It would have made the investigation easier and less expensive, and given them a chance to say goodbye, but I don't think it would have changed the body count.

That said, I totally agree that NASA should be terminated.

Did you read the

Did you read the article?

Linda Ham was wrong. Had the hole in the leading edge been seen, actions could have been taken to try to save the astronauts' lives. The first would have been simply to buy some time. Assuming a starting point on the fifth day of the flight, NASA engineers subsequently calculated that by requiring the crew to rest and sleep, the mission could have been extended to a full month, to February 15. During that time the Atlantis, which was already being prepared for a scheduled March 1 launch, could have been processed more quickly by ground crews working around the clock, and made ready to go by February 10. If all had proceeded perfectly, there would have been a five-day window in which to blast off, join up with the Columbia, and transfer the stranded astronauts one by one to safety, by means of tethered spacewalks. Such a rescue would not have been easy, and it would have involved the possibility of another fatal foam strike and the loss of two shuttles instead of one; but in the risk-versus-risk world of space flight, veterans like Mike Bloomfield would immediately have volunteered, and NASA would have bet the farm.

Any chance is better than no chance.

to play the devil's

to play the devil's advocate, I'm sure Linda Ham gets hundreds of these requests during every mission. I'm also pretty sure the Air Force is not going to take these pictures for free. Govt-to-Govt accounting is a nightmare and the added bureacracy of dealing with different pots of money is even more intimidating.

Regardless, hindsight is 20/20 and she probably should have chewed out the engineers who in turn would have talked some sense into her. Hopefully.

Cap'n, I hate to gang up on

Cap'n, I hate to gang up on you here, but the CAIB report had several suggestions for bringing back the Columbia crew. And those were just a sampling. The engineers and scientists at NASA are really creative when allowed to be (Apollo 13 for example).

Unfortunately, NASA (in fact any socialist enterprise) must become an expensive top heavy organization that hides and ignores the front line workers (in this case engineers and astronauts). The engineers at NASA are largely not political animals thus they must be kept hidden from Congress so that the managers can play politics in D.C. to maximize funding.

No amount of re-organization, no amount of "culture change" can fix what is wrong with NASA. It is simple economic laws, explained by Hayek and Mises, that say NASA cannot be anything but what it is - a socialist failure.

Spoonie, I find it utterly

Spoonie, I find it utterly bizarre that she would shut down the request without even finding out why the engineers wanted the photos. What, did she think it was just a lark, that they were screwing around? I just can't imagine the thought process behind this chain of events.

Qiwi, as an engineer myself

Qiwi, as an engineer myself I am often confronted by managers who could care less about what I think, mostly because they simply believe I want to play with cool toys. Linda probably thought that if it was important enough, it would have gone through the proper channels.

I don't think it's right to

I don't think it's right to wish psychological torture ("I hope this keeps you up at night for the rest of your days. I hope you awake sweating and shaking from dreams where seven people flame into plasma, deaths which you might have helped prevent were it not for your purely bureaucratic reaction") upon someone who is not evil. I'm from Iowa. We smile at strangers. We're slow to condemn.

From the article:
... those words were taken out of context, and used to portray Ham as a villainous and almost inhumanly callous person, which she certainly was not. In fact, she was married to an astronaut, and was as concerned as anyone about the safety of the shuttle crews.

Cap'n, Maybe she is a good

Cap'n,

Maybe she is a good person, but her actions (as based on the facts presented in the article) might have cost 7 lives. Condemnation is certainly appropriate, though I take your point.

Cap'n, Perhaps what I said

Cap'n,
Perhaps what I said was harsh. I was rather emotional when I finished reading the article. Regardless of her intentions, she did something incredibly stupid in a fit of petty bereuacratic pique, and, as you say, it could have been her husband up there. These facts only make her action seem more bizarre.

AHAHAHA! you hit the nail on

AHAHAHA! you hit the nail on the head! it wasn't HER husband up there. If it was HER husband she would have busted someone in the face to save them. hmmph.

I'll be the "jerk". No

I'll be the "jerk". No bullshit:

I hope she rots in hell, and I'm not kidding. Right now. This very evening would be soon enough to start.

Billy, I had picked up the

Billy, I had picked up the impression somewhere that you were an atheist. If that is correct, I have to wonder what exactly is being wished for when an atheist wishes hell upon some person.

She said that even if the

She said that even if the vehicle was damaged, there was nothing that could be done to save the crew so the pictures would have been moot. SHE made that decision. My question is would you want her making important decisions on your behalf?

One other question to

One other question to all:
Do you think Gene Krantz would have repeatedly canceled photo requests without thoroughly investigating?

I read the entire article

I read the entire article in the Atlantic Monthly. The one thing I want to know is if she is still employed with NASA. I tend to agree with you, she appeared to be in a loop of her own by not investigating fully the threat of tile strikes.

J. Rose

I read the Atlantic article,

I read the Atlantic article, the Gehman (CAIB)investigation team recommended more than a few changes including some firings for incompetence. Linda Ham has been reassigned, that's all. Do you think she took a cut in pay? Do you care? Do you think you can find out? Sean O'Keeffe is still in charge. What's wrong with this picture? What happened with the Ford Pinto? Is there any comparison? As taxpayers (your $$$) do you think you have a voice in what's going on?