Early in the Columbia crash investigation Boeing’s software program, “Crater,” was criticized for not adequately assessing shuttle damage during orbit. Crater shows what happens to a shuttle’s heat-protecting panels after they are hit with foam at various speeds and angles. However, Crater only tests foam chunks up to three inches long, much smaller than the two-foot chunk that hit Columbia’s wing at liftoff. While Columbia orbited earth, officials were uncertain of the extent of damage the shuttle endured. After consulting Crater, they eventually determined that Columbia could still land safely. Was this blunder NASA’s fault or a result of Crater’s shortcomings? Crater wasn’t designed to be a predictive tool, and it had never been used to assess damage during a mission. Blaming Crater is like buying a Honda and complaining that it doesn’t perform like a Porsche. And NASA officials were apparently well aware they had not bought a Porsche. Crater’s shortcomings were no secret. This commentary confronts more recent claims from the American Federation of Government Employees that contracting compromised safety at NASA: The unfortunate fact is, Columbia crashed despite the best work of contractors. After all, it was only by outsourcing that NASA could keep the shuttle program running at all. NASA’s $13 billion budget in 2000 represented a 13 percent loss of purchasing power over the past decade, and outsourcers provided necessary economic and technical boosts. NASA’s contractor, a corporation called United Space Alliance which has maintained and launched the shuttle since 1996, was the first to alert the space agency to the possibility of damage from the foam chunk that doomed the flight. But it was in fact Columbia’s mission chief and NASA employee Linda Ham who made the decision to avoid requesting spy satellite photos to keep the shuttle’s flight on time and on budget. The NASA contractor, whose 17,000 employees report to 1,700 NASA employees, was unable to override its client’s orders and avoid the catastrophe. It’s important to remember, though, that NASA’s primary mission is manned space travel, the most dangerous of all human endeavors. On the other hand, none of the last 20 shuttles would have got off the ground without competitive contracting of NASA work. The contract balances the needs for economies and safety. It rewards the company for meeting safety goals and cost-cutting while docking its pay for missing a launch date.
Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.