Countdown to the Cape: Home Again, Home Again

Charlie Duke and Alan Bean

On Saturday afternoon, we mingled with 35-some astronauts at Kennedy Space Center. By happenstance, we’d decided to make one last run through the Visitor Complex before we left Florida. Suddenly, we saw Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Serendipity! We followed Buzz Aldrin into a small conference room, filled with astronauts signing autographs for the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. In Steven Johnson’s terms, the adjacent possible!

Buzz Aldrin

Twelve men walked on the Moon. Yesterday, we saw six of them in person: Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Charlie Duke, Ed Mitchell, and David Scott. We interviewed Charlie Duke (the youngest of the six at 75 years of age), several multi-mission Shuttle astronauts, and the first nurse to the astronauts. Each astronaut with whom we spoke was gracious and interested both in the past and in the future.

Just twenty-four hours earlier, we were lamenting—albeit half-heartedly because we’d had a fruitful week—the scrub of Discovery’s launch. The Space Shuttle is an incredibly complex machine. In fact, the hydrogen leak that scrubbed the launch was just one of two problems launch preparation teams noticed. A crack occurred in the foam insulation on the side of the external fuel tank to which the orbiter is bolted.

STS-133 Crack in Foam (NASA)

The tank is 154 feet tall as it stands on the pad—as tall as a fifteen-story building—and has a diameter of 27.6 feet. The slim split in the foam was just seven inches in length. It wasn’t even a crack in the tank itself. But this type of crack with misalignment can allow ice to form near the skin of the super-cool tank. One thing could lead to another. Accidents often have multiple causes, any of which on their own might not be a big deal. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, writes, “Plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions.” On the shuttle orbiter, the ice could pop pieces of foam off during launch.

This leak and this crack are among the small problems of a host of things that could go wrong, because this machine has a lot of parts. Several online sources claim that the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo program had six million parts (others say five million, or three million), so with a 99.9% reliability rate, 6000 things would go wrong. Really, it’s unreasonable to expect everything to go right all at the same time in these complex—and explosive—apparatuses. In the early days of the space program, the Atlas rocket used in the Mercury project had a 50% failure rate. That’s right, sometimes it exploded catastrophically on the launch pad. But we put John Glenn in a little capsule at the top of an Atlas, and he orbited the Earth three times. Risk can’t be eliminated completely, so we work to understand which risks we’re taking.

Sometimes, things don’t go as expected, but that’s okay. Steven Johnson talks about the role of error, too, in Where Good Ideas Come From. Sometimes, we know, what could be a disappointment creates the opportunity for something unexpectedly good, when you shift accordingly.

Ed Mitchell

Had Discovery begun her last mission on Monday, as originally planned, or even on Tuesday or Wednesday, we would have tried to go home early. Had the launch occurred on Friday, as we expected when we rose before dawn that morning, we might have spent Saturday working in the hotel room, our goal achieved. We had come to the Cape to see a Space Shuttle launch, and we have other—primary—responsibilities to which we needed to return. But as the week unfolded, serendipity dribbled in, and the adjacent possible became visible to us. (See earlier posts related to serendipity here and here.)

That’s how we ended up spending a few hours with real astronauts in the flesh the day before we departed for home. That’s how we formed the basis for a new Lofty Ambitions feature to begin in December: Guest Interviews.

One thought on “Countdown to the Cape: Home Again, Home Again

  1. I think it’s fascinating how one tiny thing can cause a chain reaction that leads to a shuttle disaster. It seems to me that sometimes the same is true in medicine, in human relationships, in history. It’s a fascinating thought worth exploring, don’t you think?

    Meanwhile, I’m just plain envious that you got to meet men who walked on the moon. I got to meet Alaska’s first astronaut some dozen years back, and I was so ecstatic that I almost rocketed to the moon myself. 🙂

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