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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 8, 2003 - Issue 80


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Uplifting Success, Burning Failure

by Ben Sherman, Oglala Lakota

February 1, 2003

STS 107 PatchWe were gathered on Friday evening, January 27, 1967 at the Mousetrap in Cocoa Beach, a favorite watering hole for Cape Canaveral personnel. The TGIF crowd noise was deafening. Everyone but me seemed to be ignoring the television behind the bar. I could see news that looked like trouble at the Cape, so I asked the bartender to turn up the volume. Soon the crowd began to notice the broadcast, and the Mousetrap hushed as everyone gathered to watch the announcement.

The quiet room filled again with quieter noises of shock and grief as the TV newsman repeated the tragic news: Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee had died in the Apollo space capsule on Pad 34. Faulty wiring had started a fire that flashed and burned almost explosively in the pure oxygen environment, killing the astronauts before anyone could open the hatch.

Many in the Mousetrap crowd knew the astronauts personally, and others worked with them. We wept, cursed and comforted each other. Within a matter of minutes the Mousetrap had emptied. The entire lively town of Cocoa Beach shut down quickly that evening. We spent the weekend to consolidating our grief. We were not alone. People from all over the world grieved with us.

In those days it seemed that everyone knew and loved the astronauts. Gus Grissom was one of the favorites. He caught the attention of the world in 1961 when his Mercury capsule sank to the bottom of the ocean upon splashdown and he had to swim for his life until the helicopters arrived. It had always been rumored that Soviet astronauts had died in the USSR space program but nothing was known for sure at that time. In contrast, the U.S. space program has always been highly visible with its crowning achievements and heart-breaking failures.

Many failures have provided TV audiences high drama because the cameras were always present, as they should be. The early days of unmanned rocket testing included meltdowns on launch pads, wild pad-to-pad trajectories and explosions at low altitude visible from the ground. There were also thousands of less visible failures of space ship components and equipment that occurred away from the media, in countless testing labs and simulations.

I heard today - on both radio and television - brief discussions of the fallibility of technology. The reality is there are no failures of “technology.” There are only the failures of humans, even humans who are dedicated and smart and meticulous. We fail by making human errors in designing, manufacturing and testing highly complex space systems. We fail by making decisions to proceed when the true risks of failure are not known, not understood or are overlooked. Even when we understand the risk of failure, people often make management decisions to proceed.

Then there are failures that are attributed to “Acts of God.” There were many calls to ESPN that talked of God’s will. I believe in a Creator. But I know with certainty the Creator cannot be blamed for our human shortcomings that somehow caused Columbia to fail today.

The cold weather - an act of God - did not cause the failure of Challenger on January 28, 1986. The cold weather caused o-ring seals to harden, resulting in a catastrophic leak in the first stage solid rocket boosters. NASA management knew there was a problem. The space ship I worked on in 1967 used the exact same deficient design. We knew the shortcomings of the o-ring design, but nothing was done until astronauts were sacrificed. An inquiry later determined the failure was ultimately caused by poor quality and safety management by NASA officials.

Ron Dittemore, Shuttle Program Manager, is telling us today that risks are known to be present in his program, but that they can be “managed.” Today’s tragedy proves Dittemore is flat wrong and should not be allowed to further deceive us. Analysis of Columbia’s disaster will pinpoint a hardware design deficiency where the risk of reentry failure was suspected but not fully understood or “managed.” Another inquiry will find the mission was allowed to proceed with known deficiencies.

NASA’s quality assurance and reliability specialists can tell us that systems of this staggering complexity will always fail in some manner, either minor or catastrophic. The Shuttle program will go on again - after a redesign and more safeguards – with inherent risks still present.

As one who served the space program in its earlier days, I wish for success. But I will not be surprised if we are asked in the future by another President to pray for astronauts’ families as we suffer again with our national grief.

Mitakuye Oyasin, We Are All Related

Ben Sherman, President
Western American Indian Chamber
1900 Wazee Street, Suite 100
Denver, CO 80202
(303) 661-9819

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