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Discovery rollover
The space shuttle Discovery is rolled over to the Vehicle Assembly Building last week for what is scheduled to be its final mission. What lessons should we learn from the shuttle program? (credit: NASA/KSC)

The real mistakes of the space shuttle program


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Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin once called the shuttle a mistake. Looking back, I do not think the space shuttle was initially a mistake. With respect to leadership lessons learned, however, I do think two of NASA’s worst human space flight strategic decisions were made during the space shuttle program.

The space shuttle was built in hope of easy, frequent, safe, and cheap access to space. There is no mistake about it—that is still the hope today. With that hope, the space shuttle concept was no mistake. Yet, the space shuttle never met the desired expectation of easy, frequent, safe, and cheap access to space. We, NASA, have settled for less than we bargained for, and for a long, long time.

As an engineer I think there was one major design mistake regarding the space shuttle. The design mistake was the attempt to combine the X-15 aerospace drop-from-altitude aerospace plane design with a ground-launched rocket design. This new design concept was never tried or tested, and that was an engineering mistake.

The space shuttle never met the desired expectation of easy, frequent, safe, and cheap access to space. We, NASA, have settled for less than we bargained for, and for a long, long time.

The conceptual space shuttle launch design did not consider lessons learned from Apollo 13. Of course there were no Apollo lessons learned, as has been well documented by the Apollo 13 management team themselves—they will be the first to tell you there were no Apollo lessons learned, as they did at JSC on their 40th anniversary tour earlier this year. Other than in-flight anomaly close-outs—which was, by the way, the same management strategy before the Columbia loss—there were no Apollo lessons learned used to build the space shuttle strategically.

The infant Apollo organization was too young to implement and to understand Apollo success. A lessons-learned program was initiated after the Challenger accident, but even then the organization was too young to ever really use a lessons-learned program. Thus, lessons learned were written and complied but never applied, and the Columbia accident became an echo of the Challenger accident. As Sean O’Keefe often stated, 45 years into NASA human space flight, “We are still in our space program infancy.” I have yet to ever see an infant capable of generating and learning lessons. And it is hard for infants to lead.

Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were all ground-launched rockets and all had tested launch escape systems. The X-15 concept also had an equivalent launch bailout system, although from altitude. Yet the shuttle was developed with no proven launch escape system. Furthermore, the organization was too young to understand Apollo 13 success. The management team blunders of Apollo 13 that would prevail again in the Challenger accident and again in the Columbia accident were overcome by the redundant, independent design of the Apollo 13 lunar module. Had a similar independent, redundant system been installed into the Challenger and had the Challenger crew survived, people would have been saying NASA has pulled off another Apollo 13-type rescue. NASA was still too young organizationally to understand why Apollo 13 succeeded, and how to succeed strategically.

Thus the STS-5 decision to remove ejection seats from the shuttle set the stage for what was probably inevitable “failure”, rockets being rockets and all rockets failing occasionally.

It is interesting that during the Rogers Commission hearings after the Challenger accident, members of Congress were asking what had changed at NASA. The answer some NASA veterans gave was that if the Space Shuttle had done things like they had, the accident probably would not have occurred. No leader stepped forward. Alan Aldrich came as close as anyone to leading when he admitted he could not see that anything had changed, and that perhaps there “should have been more self-reflection” or, in other words, lessons learned. It is interesting that neither the Rogers Commission, nor the CAIB (in echoes of the Rogers Commission), reflected back and compared the Apollo 13 mistakes to the Shuttle mistakes. It would seem like any good investigator of a large bank robbery would investigate a botched similar bank robbery down the street a month earlier, yet the Rogers Commission and the CAIB both failed to adequately investigate Apollo 13.

Thus I think it was an engineering mistake to not test the space shuttle launch escape system, and a management mistake to not have Apollo 13 lessons learned and to not build upon that success. But this does not mean the space shuttle was a mistake. It was still a good concept, especially if it could provide cheap, safe, easy, and frequent access to space, but it never did. The two biggest mistakes demonstrating space shuttle lack of leadership mistakes were yet to come.

The first big NASA human space flight mistake would be the STS-5 decision to remove ejection seats from the shuttle. This was a great opportunity for a new leadership and new vision to step forward at NASA, but it never happened. The STS-5 decision was an opportunity for a leader to reflect back upon Apollo 13 success, and also the first chance for a leader to emerge and to say the Space Shuttle is not meeting expectations. The decision could have been made to add two more ejection seats to the space shuttle, or to change and finally test the launch ejection design. Instead, the two unproven ejection seats for the pilot and co-pilot were removed and the space shuttle was declared “operational”.

Thus the STS-5 decision set the stage for what was probably inevitable “failure”, rockets being rockets and all rockets failing occasionally. But the STS-5 decision was not the worst NASA human space flight decision, since at the time a shuttle mission had not yet failed. NASA’s worst human space flight decision, perhaps the real mistake that even Mike Griffin might agree to, was the decision to build the Endeavour, a missed opportunity to learn from failure.

Following the space shuttle Challenger loss, the NASA space flight management team, along with the President and Congress, decided to build a replacement space shuttle, the Endeavour. Here, again, was an opportunity for a NASA leader, perhaps for the first time, to emerge, think about it and walk away from the failures of the space shuttle program.

Perhaps someday, if we learn anything at all from the space shuttle program, it will be that we can stand on our own two feet, and make decisions on our own.

But once again, the infant NASA seemed too young to understand what it takes to succeed and to be able to stand upon its own two feet and to lead. One of the oldest military maxims is, “Never reinforce failure.” As Richard Truly stated upon return to flight, “The shock and grief of Challenger never affected our determination to rebuild and fly again.” Similar to Thomas Paine following Apollo 13, who stated there was no need to change even before the Apollo 13 investigation got underway, there was no strategy, no reflection, and no leadership to consider changing following Challenger. NASA would go down the same old Apollo management path.

But even worse, for the first time, symptoms of the Alan Greenspan disease of “irrational exuberance” would surface. Sometimes it is not easy to see what is wrong with an organization. In NASA’s case, the outer space strand of Alan Greenspan disease is known as “right stuff irrational exuberance”. Symptoms include an organization that thinks failure is not an option, mainly because the organization does not know what it means to succeed and does not know the difference between success and failure. The only known remedy is leadership and vision restoration.

Though not easy to diagnose, in the case of NASA the symptoms of right stuff irrational exuberance, which the organization was probably born with, were first noticeable during the Endeavour decision. It was at this time that Truly stated, “The Columbia first flew in 1981. I have no doubt it will still be flying in the year 2005.” Yet the Columbia was lost in the year 2003. This management behavior is a symptom of the irrational exuberance that has infected the entire NASA management team since birth.

Maybe someday, all of these military people at NASA will decide to use some of that strategy they have been taught, and some of these managers will attempt to stand up and use a few of the leadership skills they read about in the hundreds of leadership books and leadership seminars they go to. Perhaps someday, if we learn anything at all from the space shuttle program, it will be that we can stand on our own two feet, and make decisions on our own, and perhaps for the first time, to lead ourselves and this agency into the future, instead of traditionally waiting for someone to hold our hand and to hopefully tell us what to do, so that all we have to do is to follow, as usual.


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