Our generalization defect


in Books and literature, Geek stuff, History, Space and flight, STS-27/107

One big surprise from Michael Leinbach and Jonathan Ward’s Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew is the claim that people at NASA hadn’t anticipated the catastrophic loss of a Shuttle during reentry. That despite of the delicacy of the thermal protective tiles and the fatal consequences expected from their failure, the lack of engines and thus any way to salvage a single failed landing attempt, and the long period of commitment to a particular landing site from deorbit burn to touchdown. The lesson drawn from Challenger, in spite of all the training of all the people at NASA in statistics and rigour, is that ‘these things fail during liftoff’ — a bit of a mad generalization for a vehicle built to take the crew through a series of environments, each of which would almost immediately kill them without technological protection, from the extremely high pressure from drag at max-Q during liftoff, through the fatal vacuum of space, through fiery reentry through plasma above mach 18 to an unpowered glider landing. Assuming that the first thing that went fatally wrong would be the standard is like getting on the back of a charging bull covered in poison-tipped spines in the middle of a minefield and thinking: “This is the one that kills you by stomping on your head”.

One small quibble: the subtitle of this book is misleading. I expected it to be much more about Columbia’s crew and final mission, whereas the bulk of it is about the debris recovery efforts across the country after the shuttle disintegrated.

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