"We've lost the signal........"

Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 01:12 PM

Yep. 20 years, has it been now? Challenger blasted itself to shards over the Florida cape...

I was then working for a now-extinct maker of passive components for aerospace. It was one cold morning, too, and it seemed not even the coffee worked.

I was buried underneath a piece of gear, as the boss came in: "Hey, the wife just called, the space shuttle blew up!"

"Ha-ha.", I smirked and went back to work. "You need to work on your delivery."

But, I looked at his face. Joke, this was not.

The bad part was gathering around the tube down in QA, my heart and my stomach both quivering like a pair of tennis shoes in the dryer. The tube was on, and they were doing the obligatory "obit" stuff, where they detail the records of those no longer with us.

Then, they played it back. I wanted to puke. In all my years, even to that point, I'd seen shit that would send some screaming into the night, such as working with some friends on the rescue squad, and trust me, some car crashes stick with you.

"I don't fucking believe it.", I heard to my side. One of our engineers, and he was not the kind to use such language.

"It's gonna get real bad real fast.", the head of QA told me. "From here on in? Everyone and their brother is going to be playing cover-your-ass. We're talking serious problems, Six. There is going to be an investigation, yessir."

"May take forever.", one of the senior engineers chimed. "You're talking about a bird with more parts than a dozen helicopters."

"Worse.", I added. "Live and in living color."

By dinner time, the missus elbowed me pretty hard. "Listen."

And they were showing the tape from the cameras under the pad, and there it was: The singular plume of fire, that told me what had gone so horribly wrong. Somehow, the SRB hadn't sealed properly, a plume of burning fire ate through, and well, it doesn't take a PhD to figure the rest, eh? Put oxyfuel torch to gas tank and wait.

"So, you guys are in the clear."
"It's just beginning.", I sighed hard. "Finger pointing now begins. And as always, the real answers will be lost."

Analysis? Someone at NASA got in a hurry, and violated their own specs. The seals couldn't seal at the near-zero temp, so, when the engines starting cranking out power, some flaming gas escaped, burning a hole in the liquid fuel tank.

Is such a thing all that new, I'd be asked by others? Not even close. Anyone who hasn't read any of Ralph Nader's books, or listened to the news about record awards from juries concerning wrongful death, well, that's your own fault.

As a pilot, we were taught, almost from day one: 99 percent of all indicents that create casualties or death are usually pilot error, not mechanical failure. Rare are the mechanical goofs, more common is "Somebody miscalculated that approach speed....", "He should've paid more attention to the weather", "Only an idiot attempts to land in ice like that....."

Unfortunately, within business, and almost too many industries, and yes, even government dealings, there is always someone who makes a mistake. It doesn't take much, either. And then, sometimes, not so much a mistake, but poor judgment: A deadline being more critical than a weight-n-balance check, more important to stay on schedule, than do a deeper check of airframe wear and tear.

It's been said, but never proven, that part of the Titanic disaster was pressure put on the skipper to get to NYC at the earliest, pure PR show, of course. Was this part of what caused the accident? Hard to say, sinkings in that era were commonplace, not rare.

But, we also live in a time when stockholders demand higher returns, and those at the top often make deathly trades to appease them. Which is cheaper? A few out-of-court settlements or a safety doohickey? On time airline performance verus the occasional fatal crash due to tired pilots and crew?

And we who were in Quality Assurance, oh, we knew what the biggest hurdle to quality was all along: Upper management. You can create a safe design, engineer it to death, use the best parts, and then some dickhead in a suit demands "Make it cheaper."

Yeah, make it cheaper. Make it go when it shouldn't. Make it last forever when the data says 6 months at the max.

Challenger, then, in reality wasn't an accident or a goof; it was nothing more than inept management making yet another dumb decision, not based on logic, nor safety, nor quality, but on image, PR and sadly, yep....profits.

We lost seven good men and women, and over a year's worth of space work due to such an idiotic decision.

Of this I do know, somewhere, out there, right now, someone else, too, is making a decision as bad, as stupid, and as stuck in a dimwitted frame of logic based on either "looking good" or....profits.

And many will die. A tire will give. A wing will collapse. An engine will quit. A heart will stop. A cancer will metastatize. A war will be thrown.

And do we ever learn? When do we decide to put our foot down and learn: Human life is worth far more than money, fame, glory and ratings.

Best ask the dead that.