Thursday, January 1, 2009


Good government (among other things) requires hard-headed looks at reality. That's the only way to understand disasters. It's also important when things are going well.

NASA has taken a hard look at the crew deaths in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster. Now, of course, NASA has had safety management problems for a long time. The engineers warned against the 1986 Challenger disaster, just as they did in 2003. Management was too removed from the risks to make the right choices.

Still, NASA did take the blinders off this time in a way it did not regarding the Challenger. Thank goodness then for Richard Feynman, who apparently never had blinders on in his life. (I highly recommend What Do You Care What Other People Think? It includes his personal report on the Challenger disaster.)

The New York Times story sanitizes the death, not just where the report (PDF) itself redacts personally identifiable information. The astronauts suffered rapid decompression and blunt force trauma, either sufficient to kill them quickly and acting within seconds of each other. Asphyxia is a bit of tepid word to describe the bends (ebullism evident in recovered tissues), which would be excruciating although mercifully brief in this case.

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. Click image for details.

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