Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Kevin Drum ruminates a bit about the NASA bureaucracy, which was fingered today as the main culprit behind the Columbia disaster. I think he raises an interesting question: Is NASA's "culture" really significantly worse than any other large-scale, bureaucratic-type of "culture"? Or does it only seem that way, because when NASA goes awry, the poor results tend to be rather spectacular? I don't know, really. But I do have to consider that of the many, many spaceflights we have executed, only three have resulted in fatalities to the astronauts, and one of those took place on the launchpad. (Hell, was the Apollo 1 fire even a mishap during launch, or were those three men merely doing a kind-of "dry run"? I'll look this up later.)

Now, I do think that the Columbia disaster points out some shifts in philosophy that need to be made by NASA -- not away from human spaceflight, but toward maybe actually coming up with new ships once in a while. I'm just guessing here, but I somewhat suspect that we could have come up with a better, and safer, launch vehicle than the shuttle at some point in the last 25-plus years.

I recall one of the several good lines in the movie Armageddon (yes, it had a few, as bad as the thing on the whole might have been): when the oil-rig workers are strapped in and awaiting lift-off, someone says something like, "Hey, we're all trusting our lives and the whole planet to two machines that were built by the lowest bidder!" And I also think of how, whenever we see someone struggling with a task that shouldn't require that much struggling, a common metaphor is rocket science, as in, "Hey, this ain't rocket science! It's not that hard!" So, it seems to me that maybe we should try to limit the histrionics when something bad happens to the people who actually are doing rocket science.

(Oh, and here's another linguistic complaint: I hate the use of the word "culture" in the above context. It's another appropriation of a word by the business-and-bureaucrat community to elevate something to higher importance than it should have.)

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