Aircraft Accidents and the LM

An important anniversary this week: the 48th anniversary of the Apollo XI Moon landing.  It seemed that the early space missions were more personal in the 60s and 70s; the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights were to us what it must be like for today’s young people to see the furthest galaxies through the eyes of the Hubble or Spitzer telescopes.  Today, the ability to recover a space vehicle by landing it upright on an ocean platform was as alien a concept as Star Trek’s ability to ‘beam’ a person’s molecules from the transporter pad to a planet’s surface.  The space program of the 60s was unchartered territory; the engineers, astronauts and managers would improvise based on untapped ideas and unproven theories born of necessity; people worked together towards the common goal and as a group they shared the glory of hard earned success.

I remember where I was when Neil Armstrong descended the stairs of the Apollo XI Lunar Module (LM) and changed our lives forever.  I’d been planted for days in front of our black and white television, watching the hour-by-hour coverage by newscasters, e.g. Walter Cronkite, who followed each stage of all the Apollo missions.  Using models – the special effects of the 60s – Cronkite, et al, would exhibit as each stage of the Saturn V stage was ejected; as the Command Module maneuvered to dock with the LM, and, while showing great dexterity (by not dropping the models) demonstrated each docking and undocking procedure in amateurish, yet acceptable detail.  On July 21, 1969, with the TV’s rabbit ears correctly positioned, my family invaded the living room to witness the first step.  It was an ‘I-was-there’ moment.

In the last 48 years, the world sure has changed.  From the Apollo missions’ conclusion through Apollo/Soyuz and SkyLab, the focus had been on safety.  John Kennedy’s quote, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” was not so much a dream, but an order from the President.

The emphasis on safety became manifest when Apollo XI’s Edwin Aldrin accidentally broke a circuit breaker responsible for firing the LM’s ascent rocket.  Then, nine months later, when Apollo XIII’s mission became a desperate struggle for survival, the engineers, leaders and astronauts pooled their talents again to assure the successful return of our three astronauts to Earth; no matter what curve ball physics or undeveloped technology threw at them, they continuously rose to the occasion.  Always the sobering deaths of Apollo One astronauts, White, Chaffee and Grissom represented a stark reminder to follow President Kennedy’s order to return the astronauts safely to Earth.

And then came the inception of the Shuttle; safety changed from a way of doing business to a mission statement with the conviction of rhetoric.  After Apollo XVII, even though safety was still expected, it was taken for granted, becoming more like a notation, a reminder.  The Space Program had become invincible.  One could almost hear the Shuttle program’s management, in the voice of J. Bruce Ismay, pushing the shuttle program turn-around times beyond the line of safety.  Twenty-five times, launch after successful launch, created a false confidence of HMS Titanic proportions, until the shuttle vehicle Challenger (STS-51-L), exploded 73 seconds into its launch.

What changed from the unforeseen events of Apollo I, XI and XIII, to the preventable circumstances of the Challenger disaster?  Safety and management’s attitudes, their agendas.  Emphasis went from safety to savings; from responsibility to ingratiating; from mission to schedule.  While the Apollo mission successes relied on a team effort to solve problems together, the shuttle missions evolved in the world of agenda.

The best way I can describe an Agenda is as ‘safety in a vacuum’.

The management overseeing the Challenger launch were given the data, e.g. they knew about the overnight temperatures; possible freezing effects on the solid booster rockets’ O-rings; the time it would take to verify a safe launch.  However, they launched carelessly anyway.  Despite the need to maintain safety, they met the Agenda.

Seventeen years later, after being lulled into a false sense of renewed arrogance, the space shuttle Columbia’s management again chose tempting fate over a sure thing.  They saw the videos of the launch; witnessed the insulation hitting the shuttle’s underside; knew the risks of bringing Columbia home with its belly exposed.  The infamous decision was not based on facts, it was based on an Agenda.

It has been my experience that agendas can be found in government and industry.  They aren’t necessarily politic specific; the shuttle program’s management teams weren’t answering to a Conservative or Liberal Administration’s political influences (Challenger happened under Reagan and Columbia happened under Clinton).  Agendas aren’t established in facts, instead they are founded on personal opinion or belief.  They are a skewed impression of how things should be run, taught or organized.  Once accepted, an agenda is nearly impossible to reverse.

In my March 25th article, I wrote about a popular aviation blogger who found a 757 captain’s ‘de-icing’ procedures to be humorous and trend setting; I found them to be dangerous and foolish.  The pilot defied company policy and, using a broom, swept the wings of any icing, instead of waiting for proper deicing.  This demonstrates an agenda for the Captain’s own selfish reasons: to make himself shine.  I can assume the blogger is too young to remember Arrow Air flight 1285 (12/16/85) in Gander, Canada, resulting in 256 fatalities; or Air Florida flight 90 (1/13/82) in Washington, DC, resulting in 78 fatalities.  The purpose of accident investigation is to learn from past disastrous mistakes and prevent them in the future; both the 757 Captain and young blogger both do not learn from history.

In my teaching position, if one builds a course based on agenda, not only do the students miss the benefit of accurate information, they are led in a direction away from the true problem.  If an accident is misread due to inexperience, the ‘fix’ may never be implemented, resulting in a repeat event later on.  This denies the students an opportunity to learn truly valuable information centered on experience.

Agendas in management can result in a complete upset of the workforce.  There’s a desire of one or two to make themselves shine at the risk of others; this was evident in both the Challenger and the Columbia decisions, to ignore what was best for the program in order to further one’s position.  In the shuttle disasters, experience was trivialized in favor of doing the ‘right’ thing; the ‘right’ thing being open to interpretation.

Aviation and the space program were designed in days of black and white; of analog technology, cables and hard copies made of paper, filed in manila folders.  There is no discipline like there was when we launched men in untried steel compartments or made aircraft skin out of plywood.  And we didn’t get this far on the credit of a select few.  We need to get back to that mindset of safety over agenda.  Otherwise, we’ll never advance; we’ll be like Apollo XI’s LM descent stage: cold, abandoned and obsolete.

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