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Evan Burton

Joe Trento: Prescription for Disaster

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Prescription for Disaster: From the Glory of Apollo to the Betrayal of the Shuttle

By Joe Trento (with Susan Trento)

As a space buff, this book was a 'must-read' for me and I was impressed by the depth and honesty of its content. Joe has kindly accepted my invitation to discuss the book. It examines at the CHALLENGER disaster and the reasons why it occured.

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Joe, as you discovered during your research, there are three general areas which were responsible for the disaster: technical, political and organisational. I'd like to start with the later.

The NASA most people remember was a dynamic organisation from the 1960s, the group that landed men on the Moon, that reacted to save the Apollo 13 astronauts, that managed to develop a plan to save the Skylab station in less than 14 days.

By the mid-1980s it was another government agency interested in its own survival, perhaps above other considerations.

What happened? Did the people of NASA not care?

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Leadership. Kennedy had James Webb and Johnson Tom Paine. Both men were tough visionaries. Nixon hated Kennedy's program and treated NASA with contempt. he more than anyone destroyed the NASA culture by turning NASA over to defense contractors. Carter was an engineer and understood NASA and had he had a second term may have brought it back. Reagan treated NASA as a Hollywood prop and hope rid of a competent defense contractor type and replace him with an inexperienced ideologue. That individual was not even in the office when Challenger was launched. Eyewitnesses say that he thought the explosion was part of the normal launch process (the witness was a powerful Congressman). Bush I, Clinton and Bush II gave space lip service but provided no effective leadership. Bush II and Clinton's Administrations was terrible. Obama treated the program with greater realism and his partnership with private industry may help NASA get back to the real serious stuff. But while we all long for the days of Apollo I am afraid that is gone forever because the public does not have the political will. Considering that no program advanced our society faster it seems foolish not to reach for the stars.

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What about after CHALLENGER and the COLUMBIA disaster? Do you think that NASA learned from 1986 and made other mistakes, or did they simply repeat the mistakes of the past?

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Also, before CHALLENGER there were still people from the Apollo days, people like Gene Kranz and John Young. They were deeply affected by events like the Apollo 1; were they ignored? Were they involved at all?

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Joe, Evan or anyone who knows,

Why did Webb leave NASA after being director 7 1/2 years just before the 1st manned Apollo missions? Was Paine pushed out or did leave on his own accord?

Len

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NASA management was completely changed under Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Contractors who had been held on a tight lease by Jim Webb were given free reign. NASA inspectors were removed from contractor factories. The good Apollo managers were ignored and often demoted.

Webb told me that after the Apollo 204 file he did two things. First on the day of the astronauts funeral at Arlington he called the head of North American Rockwell in his office and said he would either sign a new contract to finish the Apollo program or Webb would switch to another company. Once he got Rockwell to sign Webb resigned because he felt he would be a political distraction. Paine was forced out by Nixon.

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Many terrific NASA employees were ignored by management. The saddest example of this was Columbia. Management in Houston knew the extent of the damage to the shuttle wing but ignored what the experts said. They also ignored suggestions of a rescue mission prior to retry. The late Roger Boisjoly was in touch with NASA engineers who were frantic to try an Apollo 13 type rescue.

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Webb told me that after the Apollo 204 file he did two things. First on the day of the astronauts funeral at Arlington he called the head of North American Rockwell in his office and said he would either sign a new contract to finish the Apollo program or Webb would switch to another company. Once he got Rockwell to sign Webb resigned because he felt he would be a political distraction. Paine was forced out by Nixon.

Thanks, but he left move than a year and a half after that tragedy but only 4 days before the launch of the 1st manned Apollo mission, odd?

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They also ignored suggestions of a rescue mission prior to retry.

Hmm - I'm not sure that would be possible but let's leave that for discussion about COLUMBIA in another thread; this is about your book.

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Webb told me that after the Apollo 204 file he did two things. First on the day of the astronauts funeral at Arlington he called the head of North American Rockwell in his office and said he would either sign a new contract to finish the Apollo program or Webb would switch to another company. Once he got Rockwell to sign Webb resigned because he felt he would be a political distraction. Paine was forced out by Nixon.

Thanks, but he left move than a year and a half after that tragedy but only 4 days before the launch of the 1st manned Apollo mission, odd?

Perhaps, but Webb knew his days were numbered. He believed Nixon would win and Webb would not remain under a new administration. I'll have to research where I heard this (and thus it may not be correct), but IIRC, Webb went to see Johnson about resigning; he wanted to co-ordinate a date in the future with the President. When he spoke to LBJ though, the President accepted his resignation on the spot... which was not Webb's plan, so he ended up leaving earlier than planned. He ccept (rather than make) what was probably the boldest decision in the history of Apollo, even greater than Apollo 11.... the flight of Apollo 8.

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Joe,

A couple of things further about the decision to launch.

Firstly, the traditional approach under Apollo was to prove that the spacecraft and booster were ready for launch; by CHALLENGER it was said that people had to prove they weer NOT ready to launch. Do you think was a gradual, corporate change or was it a more rapid change due to other factors?

Related to this was the management change in the NASA centres. I heard that some centre directors, it was almost a climate of fear, that you did not speak out. Do you know anything about that and if so, could you expand?

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Back to the timing and motivation of Webb's resignation according to Wikipedia "However, Webb was a Democrat tied closely to Johnson, and, with Johnson choosing not to run for reelection, he decided to step down as administrator to allow the next president to choose his own administrator" the cited source is a long PDF doc. but I was not able to find the reference in it. But LBJ dropped out of the race in March. Webb quit in October just days before the 1st manned mission and 3 months before the end of LBJ's term. The only thing that makes sense to mean is that he feared a repeat of the Apollo 1 disaster and decided to get out before facing such a situation again.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_E._Webb#cite_ref-2

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Joe,

How much infoluence do you think the State of the Union had? It was obviously scheduled for the fllght but how much influence on the launch date do you think the administration had?

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