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"...We Just Weren't Sure When"

An interesting take on Columbia on David Harris' Science and Literature blog:

[W]hat happened and what does it all mean? One answer is that it means pretty close to nothing. Although this may sound overly dismissive in light of increasingly-hyped media-fuelled public tragedies, there is good reason to think that this accident is neither unexpected nor ominous...

[F]rom a scientific point of view, we already knew this accident was going to happen. Of course, we hoped we could ride a wave of good luck as long as possible but sometimes the dice fall the wrong way. Continuing to rely on decades-old technology is unlikely to have helped...

What really changes in light of this event? From a scientific viewpoint, nothing. This is a redundant data point. We already knew it would happen, we just weren't sure when. Does this mean we should make changes to the space shuttle program? Not really. Well, we shouldn't make any changes that we didn't need to make before the event. Going up in a shuttle today is just as safe as it was on Saturday, and as safe as the launch before that.

David is right when he says that "we shouldn't make any changes that we didn't need to make before the event," but then what if we didn't know we needed to make them? NASA believed that its procedures to ensure the integrity of the shuttles' heat tiles were sufficient, and NASA also believed in the adequacy of its processes for reviewing any incident that could compromise tile integrity. Yet -- based on highly preliminary evidence -- it would appear neither was the case. It was too easy for tiles to be damaged during takeoff, and the review of the incident while Columbia was in orbit may have led NASA to the wrong conclusion (that the launch incident didn't pose a significant risk to the orbiter).

Did these procedures need to be changed before Saturday? Yes. Was that clear to people? If so, it doesn't seem to have been clear to the right people.

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