Sunday, May 30, 2010

Déjà vu all over again: Who could have foreseen the Deepwater Horizon disaster?


Who could have foreseen the explosion of
the space shuttle Challenger? (Who indeed.)

"The commission found that the Challenger accident was caused by a failure in the O-rings sealing the aft field joint on the right solid rocket booster, which allowed pressurized hot gases and eventually flame to 'blow by' the O-ring and make contact with the adjacent external tank, causing structural failure. The failure of the O-rings was attributed to a design flaw, as their performance could be too easily compromised by factors including the low temperature on the day of launch."
-- from the Wikipedia entry on the Rogers Commission
Report on the Challenger space-shuttle disaster

From today's New York Times:

Documents Show Early Worries About Safety of Rig

The Deepwater Horizon rig last month.

Published: May 29, 2010

WASHINGTON — Internal documents from BP show that there were serious problems and safety concerns with the Deepwater Horizon rig far earlier than those the company described to Congress last week.

The problems involved the well casing and the blowout preventer, which are considered critical pieces in the chain of events that led to the disaster on the rig.

The documents show that in March, after several weeks of problems on the rig, BP was struggling with a loss of “well control.” And as far back as 11 months ago, it was concerned about the well casing and the blowout preventer. . . .

by Ken

Remember the Challenger disaster?

My goodness, can it really be 24 years already? I think, next to the JFK assassination and the planes flying into the World Trade Center on 9/11, it's my most vivid "Do you remember where you were when you heard the news?" moment.

Remember O-rings? Who outside the aviation and space-flight industries had ever heard of an O-ring until some time after the Challenger blew up?

By the time of that ill-fated launch, we had all become pretty blasé about the no-longer-dramatic "routine" of space launches. However, the news that a space shuttle had blown up sure as shootin' riveted the country's attention. And what I remember most vividly from that time, after the unbelievable news itself, was the utter mysteriousness of it all. Officially, at least, nobody had a clue how such a thing could happen. Even in those pre-cable-news days, the talking heads suddenly had a lot of air time to fill, and everyone seemed to agree it was all beyond the realm of possibility, beyond even the possibility of speculation. Truly unfathomable.

Except it wasn't. We found out eventually that there were a lot of people who not only could fathom it but knew it could happen. There were even people who lived in haunted dread that it would happen, under conditions like those, incredibly, that obtained the day of the Challenger launch. Namely, that it was really, really cold. Oops!

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's try to reimagine ourselves back in those tender days of innocence, when the Challenger explosion was still beyond the range of human understanding. The job of sorting out what happened was entrusted to a commission popularly known by the name of its chairman, former Secretary of State William Rogers.

I remember reading much later about the participation on the Rogers Commission of Nobel physicist Richard Feynman. Apparently Feynman was by nature, as you would expect any great scientist to be, a questioner and doubter, possibly to the point of being a positive pain in the posterior. I know I should probably do some research to refresh my memory of what I read, but heck, this is just a blog, so let's go with memory, even knowing how that would have appalled Richard Feynman.

It would have appalled but not surprised him. My recollection is that it was an ex-wife of Feynman's who recalled how dubious the scientist had been about accepting appointment to the commission. He felt it would just be a dozen people being herded from official briefing to official briefing swallowing officially sanctioned talking points for the purpose of arriving at an officially sanctioned conclusion. The ex-wife, as I recall, pointed out to him that that's what the commission would be without him, whereas with him it would be 11 people shuttling from official briefing to official briefing plus him prowling around asking unofficially sanctioned sources inconvenient, likely embarrassing or even incriminating questions.

I suppose the Rogers Commission would have figured out about the O-rings with or without Feynman. You have to figure, though, that it didn't hurt to have him tramping around asking those embarrassing questions, interested only in the facts, with no concern for who might be embarrassed or inconvenienced. Here's Wikipedia on the role of Feynman:
One of the commission's best-known members was theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. His style of investigating with his own direct methods rather than following the commission schedule put him at odds with Rogers, who once commented, "Feynman is becoming a real pain." During a televised hearing, Feynman famously demonstrated how the O-rings became less resilient and subject to seal failures at ice-cold temperatures by immersing a sample of the material in a glass of ice water.[4] Feynman's own investigation reveals a disconnect between NASA's engineers and executives that was far more striking than he expected. His interviews of NASA's high-ranking managers revealed startling misunderstandings of elementary concepts. One such concept was the determination of a safety factor.

The facts, alas, were almost unimaginably horrible. Not only were both space-shuttle contractor Morton Thiokol and NASA fully briefed about the danger; there were people who argued to the death (the death of the shuttle crew, as it turned out) against going ahead with the launch under the conditions in effect that day.

I seem to remember there was one engineer at Morton Thiokol who was so sure that just such an eventuality could eventuate that he lived in a state of constant torment. Against tremendous pressure from above, he kept shooting his dread up the chain of command, and naturally was dismissed by his superiors as a troublemaker, and coerced to shut his Nervous Nellie trap. After all, there was a lot of money at stake, both in the space-shuttle program generally and specifically in sticking as closely as possible to the schedule -- meaning going ahead with the launch with a minimum of delay. And "money at stake" trumps the whining of some pathetic engineer who probably wasn't even making a six-figure salary. How important could he or his whining be?

And then the Challenger blew up.

I learned something from that experience which other people already knew but which we all need to learn, one way or another. Anytime one of these "inexplicable" events occurs, surpassing the limits of human understanding, just wait for it. The odds are overwhelming that soon enough we'll learn that not only can it be understood, it was understood, and was probably a subject of deadly concern among the initiated.

The odds are also extremely good that a small, beleaguered band of fact-based whiners was pitted against a larger, or at any rate more powerful, group of deniers. Usually it will turn out that the deniers were looking at a balance sheet, seeing precious dollars flying out the window to assuage the concerns of the comparatively lowly whiners, who might not even know how to read a balance sheet.

In the end, of course, the balance sheet on the Challenger didn't look all that great even to the all-important and all-powerful Money People. Just as the balance sheet on the Deepwater Horizon mess isn't going to look so good, unless you happen to be looking at the balance sheet of one of the companies that is, er, cleaning up on the disaster. (Never forget that article of faith to the Corporate Right: Disasters are just financial windfalls that haven't been cashed in yet.)

For what it's worth, I haven't bothered reading much beyond the portion of Ian Urbina's NYT report I've quoted above. Somehow, I have the feeling I've already read it. Too many times.

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At 7:08 PM, Blogger Lutton said...

I haven't even gotten all the way through the post yet, but when I heard there would be a "commission" my first thought was that without a Feynman it would be useless.

At 8:50 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

That seems to me an eminently correct lesson to draw from history, Lutton. And unfortunately, the lesson that the powers that be learned is to make sure that never again is there a Feynman on one of these inquiry commissions.

Certainly the Obama administration has shown in the example of the deficit commission that it understands the importance to the commission's final product of picking the members with care.


At 9:11 PM, Blogger woid said...

I remember a surreal moment on the day of the Challenger disaster: in an early press briefing, the spokeswoman kept talking about the perfect safety record of the shuttle — she kept bringing up the number of launches that had gone perfectly, ignoring the one that had just blown up. It's the same kind of total denial that we keep hearing from BP and from "drill, baby, drill" idiots today.

At 9:14 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Exactly, woid!


At 9:52 AM, Anonymous me said...

"importance to the commission's final product of picking the members with care"

The 9/11 Commission comes immediately to mind.

At 9:54 AM, Anonymous me said...

"the number of launches that had gone perfectly, ignoring the one that had just blown up"

Ask Giuliani to remind you how there were no terrorist attacks while Bush was president.


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