risk and testing and Glory

Former shuttle program manager and flight director for 40 missions, Wayne Hale, writes about looking back at the loss of Columbia and her crew and the review board that figured out what went wrong and what to do to prevent it in the future. Its a interesting commentary from someone who was there, particularly around the use of computer model testing to determine safety.

He also talks of a hand-drawn poster a flight director had in his office that read: “A Simple, Easy to Understand Falsehood is More Useful than A Complex and Incomprehensible Truth”.  There is a lot to be gained in this brief blog.  

The assumption many make about any country’s space program is that the people who work there are the best and the brightest and that risk isn’t just being mitigated, it’s being eliminated.  That assumption is espcieally made after an accident and return to flight.  Yes organization and political factors cloud decsions that probably should be made on pure technical grounds, but the fact remains that event the best and the brightest dont know what we dont know. 

As the board is assembled to investigate the loss of the Glory mission atop a Titan XL which failed to reach orbit.  It is easy for the media and the public to blame NASA or climate research in general.  Its not difficult to blame the rocket or the company that built it or even the manufcaturer of the fairing that failed to seperate leaving more mass than the second stage could do its job with.  Occam’s razor may apply here and it may be something as simple as an exploding bolt that failed to fire.  Or it may be some complex series of events that occurred, twice.   The challenge will be avoiding the simple and easy to understand falsehood.  The Glory board as well as any reviews of NASA and NSF budgets should read Wayne’s blog entry.

Wayne ends his blog entry with a quote that “You are not as smart as you think you are”.  I’d add “and that’s okay”.

read Wayne’s blog entry