Aug 24 2005

Media Is Out Of Line

Published by at 9:39 am under All General Discussions

What really burns me up is when the media trots out its bottomless naive arrogance and pretends it understands a subject the reporters can barely grasp. The Washington Post did that today when it came out with an outright disgusting claim that NASA is ‘Smug’ and safety is not a concern.

Here is their still steaming pile of dog droppings, if you are interested. And here comes a well deserved fisking.

First off, reporters must live a strange and unfulfilling life. Who else gets paid to do nothing more than observe others making incredible achievements – and then write about it. Who else makes a living criticizing people they could never even compete with, on subjects they cannot grasp? You think a reporter could tell a brain surgeon how to do surgery on a tumor? You think a reporter can tell lawyer how to defend an innocent person facing a mound of circumstantial evidence? You think a lawyer can tell NASA how to get people safely into space? For that matter, do you think you would trust a reporter to tune up your car?

So recall these people have not the first idea how NASA works and how difficult it is to get 1 million pieces of machinery and 7 people into a totally unforgiving environment safely more times than not.

The Title of this garbage is one of those items where the writer is projecting their own personal short comings onto others:

NASA’s ‘Cycle of Smugness’

Smug is the act of pretending you are better than someone else based on nothing but some egotistical grand vision of one’s self. Remember reporters – you are simply observing and desperately trying to understand. You are not experts because you watch experts and talk to them.

THE SAFETY problems that plague the space shuttle are more ingrained and more disturbing than the continuing difficulties with foam insulation that befell Discovery during its launch last month.

Silly analogy. The foam ‘problem’ has been a feature of every lift off. It was not arrogance or smugness or uncaring that allowed this to happen. It was a mistaken judgment arrived at honestly. When something occurs over and over without any real problems then one can mistakenly assume that trend will continue. But what really is unprofessional, for a journalist, is to not note that the foam problem occurred when liberals demanded a change in the formula because it had Freon in the mix. So a smug, short cited demand to remove a truly small amount of Freon from 3-5 shuttle flights a year is as much to blame as any attempt by NASA to deal with this ludicrous demand.

It was a dislodged chunk of foam that fatally damaged Columbia, and the fact that the problem recurred with Discovery despite the intense focus on fixing it is unsettling, to say the least.

It was not simply a dislodged piece of foam. And this is why math challenged reporters need to be reminded that the fact they have trouble doing long division means they should be careful when they try and explain physics. A bunch of things need to occur for a repeat of Columbia. First the humidity needs to be high so there is plenty of moisture to soak into the foam. The foam surface needs to have been misapplied or porous to allow a large amount of moisture to seep in. The foam needs to be cooled for a long time in these conditions. The foam has to break off in a large enough chunk that is sufficiently weighted down with moisture to give it the mass to hit the orbiter in the right place at the right angle to do damage. A lot of things have to culminate in just the right way for damage to occur.

That is why Columbia was a surprise. Foam being dislodged is a completely naive and inaccurate description of what is at issue here. It is much more complicated than that.

Even more troubling, though, are the conclusions of seven of 26 members of a shuttle safety task force that fundamental management failures and a chilling disregard for safety persist two years after the Columbia catastrophe.

A minority of experts did not get their way and all of sudden their claims out weigh the other 19 experts? Is the Post kidding? First off, there is no disregard for safety at NASA. Do you know that every NASA computer across the nation that is tied to the operational communications network has a freeze laid on it while the shuttle is flying? No SW changes allowed. None. These computers have less chance of effecting the shuttle than a well planned virus attack – but NASA is so safety obsessed computers in Greenbelt MD flying a 15 year old mission cannot have new SW loaded during launch of a shuttle. The people at NASA take human spaceflight dead serious. The human spaceflight community is incredibly small – there are just not that many jobs in this market. Everyone knows everyone. And the loss of member of that tight knit family is felt all over, by everyone. NASA does cutting edge, where-no-person-has-been-before work. Some idiot behind a desk at a newspaper in DC has no concept of how the NASA community feels about this. When I went to GSFC the day discovery launched the entire place was glued to their TV sets. I had never experienced that. And they were all holding their breath for a successful mission. That is how much they care and watch.

There is no lack of concern. There are differences of opinion in what is worth doing. When you have a system that is fixed to what it is, like the orbiters, then you can only do so much. If everyone recalls, when Challenger had its accident, everyone wondered why there wasn’t some kind of escape pod. The answer is because this ain’t the movies and one is not possible to design into the system. That is where mankind is in their quest into space. That is like asking why the folks who first crossed the Atlantic did not have steam powered vessels to make the journey safer. Nice idea – not there yet. And it is not that simple to create an escape pod for 7 people that can handle re-entry – without ending up with what is really a smaller version of the orbiter.

The task force was convened to assess NASA’s compliance with the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, and it concluded in June that the space agency had achieved 12 of the accident board’s 15 recommendations. But in a devastating 19-page appendix — written before Discovery’s launch but released only last week — the seven panel members looked beyond those precise recommendations to the space agency’s underlying cultural and managerial problems. It found “enduring themes of dysfunctional behavior” — including a failure of rigorous scientific analysis, an inability to accurately assess risk and a refusal to impose accountability.

Welcome to reality Washington Post. I think it is safe to say that in any large organization made up of humans there are going to be errors, mistakes and the wrong people in the wrong place. You know, like when you write something that is not true, or when you hire a plagiarist or liar who makes stories up. [Just wanted to give you something you could relate to].

The last line is a hoot. Accountability in the government is almost an oxymoron. You cannot impose accountability if you cannot fire those who make the mistakes. You want accountability? Get the unions out of the business of human space flight. Get the government unions out of the way so incompetence can be dealt with. Because that is the problem. No one is accountable because there is no action that can be taken against a government employee – and they make all the final decisions.

The members found that the “broken safety culture” identified by the accident board persisted, with risks being tolerated simply because they had not caused problems in previous flights. “This ‘we’ve seen this before’ mentality is still present,” the report said. “NASA’s leaders must break this cycle of smugness substituting for knowledge.” This is not the report of a rogue group predisposed to find fault with NASA; it included a former astronaut, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, former undersecretary of the Navy and two engineers.

There are always risks! We cannot make space flight risk free anymore than we can make driving the DC beltway risk free. Whoever authored that statement is a complete idiot. We are exploring space folks. No one is being forced to do this against their will. Everyone knows the risks. Are we taking this same approach to night landing runs on aircraft carriers? Is the Navy and its engineers smug because the systems they have learned to develop through trial and error are now safer because people died working out the kinks? This quest for ‘perfection’ is arrogant smugness – because it doesn’t exist.

And talk about your ‘experts’! What does a Director of CBO – accountants – know about space systems engineering and astrophysics? The same question to the Undersecretary (possibly a life long bureaucrat) of the Navy? The astronaut has a grasp of the systems for sure – at the user level. They are very smart and gifted people and I will listen to them, as well as the engineers. But the truth is they were in the minority. And that is the truth of this. There is no smugness – there are multiple views of a very, very complex problem and the easy answer were already done. The Washington post coming into this debate like a child coming into a discussion between doctors trying to determine the best approach to help a patient with an undiagnosed condition. They are out of their league.

Among the problems they cited was “false schedule pressure” to resume shuttle flights, resulting in a failure to implement the best solution because of arbitrary time constraints. “As a result, at the end of 2 1/2 years and $1.5 billion or more, it is not clear what has been accomplished,” the group said.

Well folks, you need a schedule to aim for or else you simply spend money without an end in sight. And we have people up in orbit on the space station who needed those orbiters back on line. That is not false schedule pressure. I am going to go review this report but I can tell already these dissenters could not find anything tangible which is why they are moaning about vague issues.

Before the shuttle flies again, and before more billions are spent on human space flight, there must be evidence that the space agency has, finally, managed to end this dangerous cycle.

What dangerous cycle? The truth is in the last sentence. The post is making all this noise because it is against spending money on manned space flight – always has been. The Post just yanked the nation’s chain using highly derogatory, inflammatory and uncalled for rhetoric to mobilize people to their little policy agenda.

For those who like to read for themselves instead of having reporters explain things to them, here is the report in question.

I may or may not do an update on the report itself, but as I suspected this minority group is not all the Washington Post thinks they are. Take this snippet from their statement:

These processes should be enforced across all projects and elements, and preferably even across programs. Implementing standard processes across programs allows more consistent evaluations of the programs, and eases the transition of personnel moving from one program to another. As we observed them, the return-to-flight activities often demonstrated a lack of standard processes, and, in some cases, simply a lack of any process at all.

Processes are not a panacea and worry about anyone who claims they alone can create a quality outcome. I have seen the rigorous march to a process march a system right over a cliff. The people make the system and a process helps. But like anything, when you put garbage in you get garbage out. Just processed garbage. In fact, it is the blind faith in a process that kills off out-of-the-box thinking and lures people into a false sense of security. They stop looking out for potential problems because there is no need, they followed the process. To get an idea how hypocritically ironic this is, it was a dedication to a repeatable process that doomed both orbiters. Once a process has been used and shown to work it is impossible to raise a warning flag that the process may be drifting into unkown areas. To change a process that is working introduces risk! The O rings on Challenger had worked just fine so many times, and the processes all followed, that when someone said ‘hey wait, we never tried to launch at this cold of a temperature before’ all these process people came out and said not to worry – we followed the process.

Forget what the post is saying, they have no idea what they are talking about.

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