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The Insider Who Knew

  • By David Levin
  • Posted 10.14.08
  • NOVA

Hear Rodney Rocha, a chief structural engineer in the Space Shuttle program, describe the tense days leading up to the Columbia disaster. Rocha, who had reviewed videos of the launch, feared that the craft might be vulnerable upon reentry.

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NASA engineer Rodney Rocha, whose warnings about the Space Shuttle Columbia went unheeded, looks back at the disaster.

Transcript

The Insider Who Knew

Posted October 14, 2008

DAVID LEVIN: You're listening to a NOVA podcast. I'm David Levin.

On January 16, 2003, space shuttle Columbia lifted off for the last time. As it climbed, a chunk of foam from the external fuel tank broke free and slammed into the left wing at over 500 miles an hour. Mission managers thought the damage was minimal. But a number of shuttle engineers who reviewed videos of the launch were concerned that it could trigger a major malfunction. Among them was Rodney Rocha, a chief structural engineer.

RODNEY ROCHA: My gut feeling from watching the video and talking to our heat transfer and thermal experts is, "This could be pretty serious".

DAVID LEVIN: Rocha had seen the video one day after launch, a Friday. It was just before Martin Luther King weekend, when much of his staff would be out of the office. So he sent an email to shuttle managers asking if they were taking any action. He never received a response.

When NASA's Debris Assessment Team—which included Rocha—finally met on Tuesday to discuss the potential damage, they had little information to work with.

RODNEY ROCHA: The first agenda topic was, "Where did it hit, and what was the extent of the damage?" That was immediately apparent that morning. Was it the landing gear door? If there were breaching there, hot gas would enter the landing gear system, and those are high pressure tires. They're bombs. It was an extraordinary event, and it needed an extraordinary response.

DAVID LEVIN: Rocha sent an urgent request to get high-resolution images of the shuttle's wing. Military spy satellites were used for similar purposes in the early 1980s. Maybe they could help this time as well.

RODNEY ROCHA: So, that's why in my e-mail request, I said, "Let's beg for outside agency assistance." We're highly uncertain about this problem. There's too many possibilities here. Some of them are very bad." We needed an image, that's all we needed.

DAVID LEVIN: But his concerns were dismissed. Rocha's requests for new images were canceled by senior managers. Their rationale was that foam strikes during earlier missions hadn't caused major damage.

RODNEY ROCHA: Oh, I was devastated. How could you possibly say no? The debris assessment team was specifically charged to make a recommendation that it's safe or not safe. and deliver an answer in three days. But without this photo, It's like someone saying, "I want you to tell me how bad that car accident is that you just heard out the window. And you say, "Well, I'll go look out the window," and someone says, "No, you may not look out the window. You do your analysis first, and you tell me if you need to call an ambulance first." How can you possibly get out of that kind of uncertainty? It's impossible. That's where we were, stuck.

DAVID LEVIN: By mid-week, other members of his team had met with similar resistance. So Rocha drafted an email directly to senior officials in the shuttle program. "In my humble technical opinion", he wrote, "this is… wrong, and bordering on irresponsible…" But Rocha never sent the message for fear of jumping the chain of command.

RODNEY ROCHA: my finger hovered over the send key. And I did not send it. Like any large organization, you have protocol. You have managers, and you have other people that you should inform.

DAVID LEVIN: On Friday, January 24—nine days after the launch—Rocha's Debris Assessment Team offered their findings to shuttle mission managers. They had met their deadline, but were handicapped by a lack of images.

RODNEY ROCHA: It unfortunately came to the conclusion there was no safety of flight issue. I think we were all caught in this conundrum of the "prove it's unsafe" mode. The vehicle's okay until you show otherwise. Today that seems crazy.

DAVID LEVIN: Over the next few days, Rocha wondered—"what if we're wrong?"

RODNEY ROCHA: A week later, it was starting to eat on me again, what the concerns were. There was no management behind me. So I felt pretty alone. And kind of crazy. I'm starting to be outnumbered by the people who think it might be okay or the others that are just kind of giving up on it.

DAVID LEVIN: Rocha continued debating the danger with other engineers until February 1, the day Columbia was scheduled to land.

As the shuttle re-entered Earth's atmosphere, he watched as his nightmare scenario came true. Superheated gas rushed into a large hole in the shuttle's wing. 16 minutes before its scheduled touchdown, it broke apart in the skies over North Texas. Columbia—and the seven men and women aboard—were lost.

RODNEY ROCHA: One of my regrets is that I didn't break the door down. Like, why not just go and go to the very top and be very demanding and insisting on what we need? Hundreds if not thousands of people would've put their brains together and started thinking pretty smartly about how to respond to this. Now, would that have worked? I guess I'll never know.

DAVID LEVIN: The investigation that followed the disaster noted Rocha's efforts in the face of what it called "stifling protocol" in NASA communications. Rocha says much has changed in the wake of the accident.

RODNEY ROCHA: Flight readiness process got more rigorous and got more formalized. There's a lot more talk about safety-- we're not so scared anymore about emailing or what the protocol is. People email each other top to bottom. It's a different world today, and I think it's better.

Today, despite its past failures, Rocha is still a firm believer in the space shuttle program. As NASA moves towards retiring the shuttle fleet, he's mourning the loss of the machines he helped operate for almost three decades.

RODNEY ROCHA: it is the most complicated, most magnificent machine ever built. It requires thousands of people to make it run right. It is extraordinarily complex. A million things can go wrong. And yet, it's amazing how it functions and is able to get to orbit under that controlled fury of that energy in the rocket thrust and so on. I'm hoping there's still a bright future. But I am grieving the end.

Credits

Image

(Rodney Rocha)
© WGBH Educational Foundation and The Factory All Rights Reserved

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