Immediately after the space shuttle Columbia broke up upon re-entry ten years ago, I realized that it was very unlikely that NASA did not know that the spacecraft had been damaged. Further, I was certain that NASA had been aware the ship would probably be destroyed upon re-entry. My only question was whether the crew had been told or not. I was, after a few weeks, sure that they had not been told since there was no discussion of it by family members getting out to the press. And I was optimistic that, eventually, someone would talk and let us know the whole story.
Yes, I'll admit it: I was suspicious of a "conspiracy." My suspicions were in part confirmed by the information that came out immediately after the incident concerning the probable cause of the disaster. They had to have analyzed that footage immediately after take off as a routine matter, I was sure. The speed with which they came out with a lot of information was damning as well.
It was obvious to me that there was a cover-up of the facts to avoid an unprecedented public relations disaster that would have haunted NASA for years. Imagine, I stated to friends on and off the internet, what an utter failure NASA would have looked like as they had helplessly watched from below as the astronauts spent their last days alive in orbit, unable to return to earth, and slowly ran out of air. The space shuttle Columbia as an orbiting tomb was anathema to bureaucrats who make a very expensive affair out of launching rockets on old systems and so far are remaining an obstacle to man's full commercial exploitation of space. They were, and are, in the "catbird seat." They don't want to give up any of the taxpayer dollars flowing into their organization. To keep those dollars flowing, they have to engage heavily in politics. Politics is centered on perception and public reactions to what they accomplish--and especially on mistakes they make.
As bureaucracies tend to do, the decision to kill the astronauts upon reentry in an "accident" was made in order to protect the government agency and cover up their bureaucratic bumbling. While there was no way to "win" in the situation, the leaders quickly determined that the far better alternative was to have the accident be short and horrific with the resulting wave of public sympathy to ameliorate the negative outcome. On the other hand, a drawn out disaster lasting many days of instant news cycles with video footage of astronauts tearfully saying goodbye would have certainly led to the dismissal of the leadership and possibly a total reorganization of NASA. That the decision made was a result of cold, calculating minds that put the lives of the astronauts as the last priority has finally been revealed:
Those on the ground decided that it would be better if the crew were spared knowledge of the risks.
There was no way to repair any suspected damage - the crew were far from the International Space Station and had no robotic arm for repairs. It would have taken too long to send up another shuttle to rescue them.
Wayne Hale, who went on to become space shuttle program manager, has written on his blog about the fateful day.
'After one of the MMTs (Mission Management Team) when possible damage to the orbiter was discussed, he (Flight Director Jon Harpold) gave me his opinion: ''You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS (Thermal Protection System).'
'"If it has been damaged it's probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don't you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?"'
Well, uh, since I, like most people, actually have some empathy for the individuals that died aboard the space shuttle, I think if I had been in that situation that it would have been really grand in terms of the big picture of one's brief existence on (and above) earth to have had a chance to say goodbye to my friends and family before my body was destroyed in a fiery explosion miles above the earth.
Who the hell were they to determine what was best for the astronauts? What the bureaucracy did in taking away their last few days of existence is something akin to to murder. Flippantly assuming what the astronauts might have wanted or what was "best" for them is arrogant and evil, yet it is the essence of the all-powerful, big government mindset. Oh, how generous of them to send the shuttle crew to their deaths a few days earlier than they had to. They "saved them" from all that mental anguish? To hell with that! If it had been me, I'd have wanted every last second of life.
Yeah, it would have been miserable to go through that expectation of certain death, probably making the futile attempt to reenter just before the air ran out, but I'd rather have been treated with a little respect as a fellow human being and told of the bad news. Those last few days of existence would have been like gold to me and to my family however upsetting the circumstances. Such an ending, knowing that it is near, is a far better one than being conveniently dismissed as just another dog or chimpanzee experiment that just so happened to end in the death of the subjects.
Although another article from 2011 treated the discussion as if it were all a hypothetical question at the time and state that members of NASA leadership were certain that the heat shield would be fine, it is clear that the news of this discussion was held back on purpose in order to protect themselves and the agency as a whole. It is also apparent that the fact that the discussion occurred at all--even if under what they claim were "hypothetical" terms--indicates that there was, at the very least, a willing blindness to the potential of disaster. They purposefully did not do everything they could have to investigate fully the consequences after being made aware early on of the foam impact.
It is apparent to me that this was much more than a hypothetical discussion. It was, at the very least, a trial balloon that was quickly shot down by the powers that be. The question, if put in plain English, really was, "Since there was a heavy impact of a large piece of foam at high velocity on a critical section of the shuttle's heat shield, should we risk putting our agency under negative, worldwide scrutiny of the entire world in a drawn out, real-life disaster epic by actually finding out the facts of the situation?"
The answer was, "No. We let the astronauts die without warning for the good of the American space program and in order to protect our jobs. Look out for number one and CYA!"
Strangely enough, Hale admits there was a purposeful attempt to deceive the Columbia astronauts. NASA leadership admittedly had very big concerns but they downplayed everything to the crew:
NASA managers even sent the crew a 15-second video clip of the foam strike and “made it very clear to them no, no concerns,” according to the independent board that later investigated the accident. Eight times, NASA had the opportunity to get a closer look at the damage— using military satellites — and NASA mistakenly ignored those chances to see how bad the problem was, the accident board concluded.
Claiming that there were "no concerns" when there obviously were, Hale admits "[t]here was never any debate about what to tell the crew.”
And what they told them was not the whole truth obviously.
But then they go on to claim that they would have told the astronauts if they had been aware of the full extent of the damage:
And had NASA realized the severity of the problem, the space agency would not have just let the astronauts die without a fight or a word, despite Harpold’s hypothetical question, Hale said.
“We would have pulled out all the stops. There would have been no stone left unturned. We would have had the entire nation working on it,” Hale said. Ultimately, Hale said he thinks whatever NASA would have tried in 2003 with limited time and knowledge probably would have failed.
But then Hale admits they purposefully did not take advantage of the means to fully investigate the extent of the damage due to a "fatalistic attitude about the heat shield system being unfixable, which was “a wrong-headed cultural norm that we had all bought into,” Hale said.
Which was it then? A cultural norm of hopelessness and not wanting to know even when there are obviously bad signs of potential damage? Or was it purposeful deceit? Obviously it was both. They admit that they knew there was potentially bad damage but didn't want to face the consequences in a responsible manner and hide their heads in the sand.
What happened was obviously bureaucratic mind-gaming aimed at avoiding dealing with the problem in an open and honest matter. The leadership at NASA essentially admits that they did not want to know for absolute certain that there was a problem. That really means, for the bureaucratic mindset that they didn't want to be held culpable for having known ahead of time that the flight was doomed. If they had fully investigated, they couldn't have held out any hope and would have been forced to tell the crew the bad news. If, as they decided due to "fatalistic attitude about the heat shield system being unfixable" not to investigate, they felt themselves not responsible for what happened. "Oops! How did THAT happen?"
Then, of course, there was the expected drama of a full investigation, Challenger incident redux, and the systematic diffusion of real blame away from the leadership. Noble goals of not letting this ever happen again, developing a questionable repair kit, and claiming they were "never ever going to say that there is nothing we can do” are designed to distract but really only confirm that their failure to investigate was designed to protect themselves and their agency.
It is obvious that fear alone determined NASA administrators' course of action. They knew that the chunk of foam that hit was the biggest by far to ever hit a shuttle and they knew already of damage caused by smaller chunks and they knew the location of the hit was critical.
Following the crash, low-level engineers at Johnson Space Center revealed that they had tried to alert NASA senior staff about problems with the shuttle.
One of the most fundamental aspects of human dignity is that of choice. The leadership at NASA, in my opinion, acted in a depraved and cowardly manner. They took away the element of choice from the astronauts aboard Columbia. Withholding the knowledge they had from those fellow human beings most affected by it is criminal negligence in this writer's opinion. Treating humans as mere cogs in the NASA machine is the worst sin of all, morally. They took away their choice and their dignity by presuming to know what was best for them. NASA's treatment of the Columbia crew as not worthy of being consulted on their impending doom is a stain upon their reputation that can never be removed.
The treatment of the space shuttle Columbia crew by a self-absorbed government agency led by money-grubbing psychopaths looking out for the best interests of their future funding rather than treating their fellow man with respect is reprehensible. It should go down in history as yet another example of how big government treats individuals with disrespect. This treatment is part of the ongoing process of dehumanization of individuals and their attendant rights and liberties by creating in the public's minds the perception that individuals are the "little people" and that the grand goals and desires of large organizations and governments are the most important parts of the human experience. Indeed, space flight and the conquering of space are grand achievements that capture the imagination but even those goals and accomplishments so far are absolutely nothing compared to the miracle of life here on earth and the fact of our existence in the universe around us. Group achievements can never overshadow the wonder of the individual's relationship to God and nature.
In the past, such a big government attitude belittling or ignoring individual liberty was the definition of being a Whig. It was the Hamiltonian view that government existed in order to promote itself and to enrich favored individuals or groups in the ruling elite. In other words, such self-serving government was an extension of the monarchic system and its attendant aristocracy. Today, such a prevalent attitude is termed as being essential in order to promote grand public works projects in the name of the socialist state. Identical elitist attitudes, just different names for the same old tyranny.
Such organizations as NASA are very impersonal as a whole yet the experience that each of us has in our lives, due to the very nature of our existence, is VERY personal. This whole incident is yet another warning of how groups of people often act more as a brutal mob than as moral creatures grateful for their existence and respectful of their fellow human beings.
So, chalk one up to the "conspiracy nuts" this time around. Those of us who publicly or privately suspected the truth were right after all. A cynical view of big government is healthy for one's chances of survival. For those of us who want to be free and want succeeding generations to also be blessed with liberty, it is essential.