Amid the sometimes poignant, sometimes maudlin coverage of the Columbia disaster this weekend percolated the unsettling notion that the seven astronauts on the Shuttle might have been doomed from the earliest moments of their flight, that their supervisors might have suspected this, but that no one told the crew about what their doomed fate might be.
I didn't hear any journalists come right out and ask NASA officials about whether this is true -- in times of tragedy there is a politeness protocol, after all, even for reporters -- but several press conference questions Saturday and Sunday clearly suggested that this sad story might go in that direction, among others.
We know that something -- probably protective foam-- from the external fuel tank fell off and struck the left wing of Columbia 80 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 16. We also know that the folks at NASA discovered this incident the next day and then spent a good deal of time evaluating film of the liftoff frame-by-frame to determine whether there was anything anyone could do about the problem while Columbia was in orbit. Apparently, the Agency's best and brightest determined that there was nothing anyone could do. NASA then told the astronauts about what they called an "off-nominal" event, explained the situation, and then allowed the crew to continue on with what would be their last flight.
This version of events is not an unreasonable one. And in the days and weeks ahead we are certainly going to learn more about what went wrong, both on liftoff and then on descent. But the question of what went wrong is very different from the question of who told what to whom and when. To me, the second question is far more interesting than the first because it speaks to the level of candor between human beings rather than the level of interaction between technical components.
Someday, probably soon, we'll learn the precise order of the parade of unexpected mechanical horribles that led to the ultimate breakup of the ship. I wonder, though, if we'll learn just as quickly about what the shuttle crew knew and when it knew it.
It is conceivable -- indeed it may even be likely -- that NASA's engineers truly believed that the incident on liftoff would not unduly affect re-entry. And, believing this, it is conceivable that the folks on the ground would not have rushed to alarm Columbia's crew or the public. But it is also conceivable that some flight engineers suspected major re-entry problems -- NBC News reported as much Monday morning -- and this leaves me wondering how candid space officials were with their crew and the rest of us about what might happen Saturday morning when Columbia was expected to break back into our atmosphere.
Did the folks on the ground underestimate the nature of the damage to the tiles in which case we'd be talking about human as well as mechanical error? Or did Houston accurately evaluate what happened on liftoff and then hope for the best, figuring there was nothing they could do to prevent the worst? We ultimately must know whether key flight officials, figuring there was nothing to do but continue with the mission, leveled with the crew about its chances or purposely left the seven in the dark in whole or in part about how rough re-entry might be.
We must know whether there was an internal debate at NASA over what to tell Columbia's crew and when. We must know what NASA's textbook says about such a circumstance; what NASA officials are supposed to do in the event they learn about a potentially catastrophic event that doesn't affect a shuttle's mission but does affect its safe return to Earth.
We must know whether the evaluation of the danger to the crew of the "off-nominal" liftoff event was skewed in some way by whatever it is that could skew such an evaluation (say, the desire to save the crew from knowing how doomed it was or the need to complete all of the mission's experiments before trying the tricky re-entry maneuver).
You would think that the "manual" requires complete honesty between ground and crew, if not between NASA and the rest of us. If this indeed is the case-- I have no idea, I'm just asking-- that policy ought to be explained in full and quickly in order, at the least, to put to rest the types of questions this column raises.
When there were problems with Apollo 13 a generation ago, the whole world knew what they were. But in that case the crew reported the problem to Houston ("Houston, we have a problem," remember?) With Columbia, on the other hand, the crew had to be notified by Houston about what had happened on liftoff. Did this affect the flow of information between ground and space? Did the crew really know all there was to know about its situation? Or were they, forgive me, dead men and women floating through space all last week?
I'm not trying to muckrake. I think the ultimate answer will be far less sinister than what some of these questions suggest. It's virtually inconceivable to me that NASA would have allowed the friends and family members of the crew to gather Saturday morning if flight engineers truly believed there was a strong chance of a disaster.
But the inconceivable has happened before. And for the sake of the crew of Columbia I think the rest of us deserve to know not just about the nuts and bolts of the failed operation but also about what went on in the hearts and the minds of the people directly involved on Earth and in Space.