it was immediately interpreted as a possible terrorist event. The shuttle’s disintegration, also captured on film, was shown repeatedly in the days following the accident. Mazur, using the example of the Cassini mission, said that the sociological model applies as well to unmanned missions, such as space probes carrying radioactive material, that are perceived to present a risk to the public. The public controversy over the Cassini mission was familiar from other public controversies over risky technologies. The argument of opponents and proponents lead to balanced media coverage, with each side given a voice. Soon the controversy itself became newsworthy, which heightened the level of news reporting. With doubts about the safety of the mission featured in the newspapers and on television, public concern was aroused and opposition to the mission increased. Attempts by Cassini proponents to correct the news reports amounted to throwing gasoline on a fire, increasing the level of news coverage and therefore of public concern.
Asked by a panel member if NASA could influence the amount of media attention to human spaceflight, Mazur replied that coverage will be extensive if an accident is linked with an event such as having a schoolteacher on board. An unmanned flight can also escalate into a big media story if the flight itself is controversial (this could happen with future missions using technology developed in NASA’s Prometheus).
General John Barry began his summary of key points from the Columbia Accident Review Board (CAIB) report by noting that the patch honoring Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia on the back page of the report avows that exploration will continue in the face of adversity. In this context, he said, “adversity” can almost be replaced by “risk.” The CAIB found that the shuttle is not inherently unsafe—rather, it is a developmental vehicle, which has inherent risks, not an operational vehicle. An incorrect mindset both inside and outside NASA—namely that the shuttle is operational—contributed to safety problems, according to the CAIB.
Barry also pointed out that it was the first time the nation had used aging vehicles—the space shuttles—in an R&D environment, which presents a new challenge. The CAIB looked at both technical issues (for example, problems with the shuttle’s external tank foam insulation) and management/cultural issues inside NASA and then sought to make projections about high-risk areas associated with human spaceflight. The Columbia accident represents a turning point for NASA—impelling a new debate about the nation’s commitment to human spaceflight and a new vision for that commitment.
Barry emphasized that human spaceflight is not routine and has many risks. A risk-averse organization like NASA needs constant learning, but NASA did not go to school on Challenger. The U.S. Navy used the findings of the Challenger accident investigation as an example of how, after an accident, to learn from mistakes, but NASA did not. For instance, the same people controlled schedules for costs, testing, maintenance, flight, and so forth, yet the agency needed more checks and balances. Barry also discussed the tendency for the agency to normalize deviance—that is, when a mistake occurs more than once, the tendency is to accept it (for example, the repeated loss of foam became acceptable when it should not have). In addition, he said that when an issue is first raised, the agency’s approach is to prove that there is no problem but that after launch, the approach is to prove that there is a problem, making the agency reactive rather than proactive about risk.
One of the CAIB recommendations is that NASA needs to be a better-integrated organization. The agency’s shuttle program integration office did not really serve this