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Re^4: "Practices and Principles" to death

by ack (Deacon)
on Mar 01, 2008 at 04:10 UTC ( #671337=note: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

in reply to Re^3: "Practices and Principles" to death
in thread "Practices and Principles" to death

An interesting question. I spent about 5 years as a Chief Systems Engineer at NASA in the early 80's...starting about 6 months before the second flight of the space shuttle...and ending when I transfered to Albuquerque, NM, with my wife (who had just finished medical school and was enter her residency) about a year after the Challenger disaster.

NASA was wrestling with that exact question: what is the cost of an astronaut's life. They concluded that if the Space Shuttle was to ever become the '18-wheeler of space' then they needed to get past the historic view of 'preserve astronaut life at all costs'...which had been the mantra of all of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flights.

So they boldly concluded that it was inevitable that astronauts would be lost (I still remember, vividly, a big meeting where we told almost those exact words)...they argued that the public expected and needed (with respect to the possible loss of astronauts' lives) us to 'get past it.'

So they embarked on a course (which I wrestled with almost every day in my job) that we had to focus on 'minimal testing', 'production mentailitly', etc.

So we did...and costs began to go way down and we were turning Shuttle flights at an effective rate of about 10 per year (compared to the roughly 0.75 per year of the first few Shuttle flights).

And then came Challenger. The public pretty much crucified NASA...and, in my opinion, NASA has never recovered.

We all learned that the value of astronauts' lives was not at all related to any insurance computations or other 'typical' cost estimating strategies.

It looked to me like it was the cost of an entire many-billions-of-dollars Agency's reputation and ability to gather and consilate funds to continue their service to the taxpayers. I would argue that the cost of an astronaut's life is almost inconceivable.

ack Albuquerque, NM
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Re^5: "Practices and Principles" to death
by zentara (Archbishop) on Mar 01, 2008 at 17:17 UTC
    And then came Challenger. The public pretty much crucified NASA...and, in my opinion, NASA has never recovered.

    I never considered NASA responsible for Challenger. IIRC, the White House pressured NASA to make the launch for publicity reasons, otherwise they would have delayed for temperature reasons. And that brings up the "real" testing issue in this case..... how well did Morton-Thiokol test those O-rings for low temperature safety, and was it documented in a chart showing the failure-vs-temperature probability. From what I recall, they just relied on some engineer issuing a politically pressured guess. (Of course Morton-Thiokol might just have been a scapegoat, being small enough to blame without too much adverse corporate disrepute).

    Everyone gets alot of "patriotic confusion" over the space race, and the blame game gets very distorted, since they feel failures are a reflection of God's love/hate for our country. As a matter of fact, I had a woman blame me personally for the Challenger disaster, because the night before at dinner, I was discussing whether it was even ethical to blast rockets into space. She claimed I psychically caused it by bad thoughts. Unbelievable!

    And then there is the Columbia's reentry burnup.... that one that burned up over Texas. Are you telling me that they didn't have a contingency plan? They just crossed their fingers and prayed it would make it.... well it didn't. They devalued those astronaut's lifes. After that, they made a contingency plan to assuage public uproar.

    Now to inject my own psycho-babble blame for those 2 disasters......they both occurred under Republican administrations....Reagan and Bush Jr., who made it a point to curtail non-military spending.

    Anyways, I don't want to bash NASA in this thread about software testing, because those were hardware and political failures.

    The biggest most unbelievable software blunder in space, related to poor testing, was that infamous "metric-vs-english" value for the gravitational constant which destroyed that Mar's probe a few years ago. Now that was negligence! Are you telling me, that their simulations didn't detect that gross error? A complete failure of proper software testing.

    I'm not really a human, but I play one on earth. Cogito ergo sum a bum

      Competing blunder: the float-to-16bit-signed-integer-conversion bug which caused the destruction of Ariane 5 in 1996: alas, the resulting number was higher than 2**15, so the steering system collapsed and transfered control to the secondary system which ran into the same bug...

      some facts:

      • the bug was triggered 36.7 seconds after start
      • it was Ariane 4 software, but Ariane 5 was faster
      • the software containing the bug wasn't used at all in the flight, it was only used at countdown. To enable a fast reset the software was scheduled to be active for 40 seconds after start
      • primary and backup computer systems had identical software
      • the casting hasn't been harnessed, because nobody thought an overflow was possible

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