Happy Accidents

The Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report contains little to no mention of the actual crew. For an entire production that cost the government $400 million dollars, it does shit to reveal anything about the experience of a human body in extraterrestrial environments. [1] There are, however, about 400 pages of methodical interrogations into what caused the Crew Module to break apart from the rest of the shuttle upon re-entering the atmosphere.

The purpose of this study, published in 2008 two years after the initial report filed by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, was to recapitulate initial findings into design and policy recommendations that would specifically benefit the survival of future astronauts. If the lives of these fallen astronauts cannot be redeemed then perhaps the machine can. Our attempts to master the impassive universe couldn’t have been for nothing: especially after Challenger, we had to believe that the Columbia accident was inconceivable.

Previous accidents related to NASA’s human spaceflight programs were much more comprehensible. I mean that when a cabin fire burned the crew of Apollo 1 alive before they even touched the sky or Challenger disintegrated killing all seven crew members 73 seconds into its flight, we were able to understand this conjunction of doom and fate because of how it made us feel. “It is for them, and for the future generations of explorers, that we strive to be better and go farther." (xx) [2] The doting public felt the gravity of their sacrifice as immediately as it occurred, engrained by way of its horrifying transmission over national television.

But something about Columbia breaking up just as it crossed the Kármán line--on the edge of what we have arbitrarily designated as extraterrestrial--made its destruction much more of a mystery.

We place an inordinate amount of faith in the machine, in the fuselage as an infallible body: one that guarantees immunity from the dispassionate forces of space. We’d like to think that the bio-logic of human physiology which sometimes mistakes its self for a foreign substance can be mastered. We must remember that anything that is corporeal must experience autoimmunity, for a body’s metaphorical purpose is to find ways to be spared from its own logic. Accident reports tell us about a spacecraft’s experience of this.

The harsh expanse of space is already cold, tired, and lonely. That’s why our stories about it are often the opposite. Besides: what use is there to continue on thinking of space travel as a burden, or even worse an obligation? We must imagine an experience of these underdetermined spaces that we can find comfort in. We must learn how to love our doomed astronauts in the same way we love the terminally ill: by knowing in advance that they can’t be saved.

Memories of the Space Age.

Video recovered from the flight deck depicts a haunting nonchalance just moments before de-orbit.

A forceful wonder radiates from the footage: lights on panels flash in concert with their human operators, a well rehearsed orchestration with my memories of visiting the cockpit of an airplane as a child. We can always be sure that what the mind can’t comprehend will be supplemented by our cultural imagination. Such a vertiginous hope that, like Kirk and Spock, we too could touch the stars…for it is not human genius that we stand in awe of but the character of humanity which sustains it.

Laurel Clark: “KC, can you look at the camera a second? Look at me.”

Kalpana Chawla: “Me? Oh, I just turn towards you, I see what you have there!”

Clark: “Yeah.” (Laughter) [3]

For the last 15 minutes of their observable lives, the crew crack jokes and bicker. Pretty typical for a group of people who just spent two weeks together in a cramped space. Commander Rick Husband takes one last sip from a water pouch and floats it back to a Chawla for disposal, who requests a moment to lock her gloves into her suit. First-time astronaut Clark marvels at the streaks of plasma flashing by while the ever-dutiful pilot, William McCool, gently scolds his crew to check their pressure suits and focus up.

Clark: “There’s some good stuff outside. I’m filming overhead right now.”

McCool: “It’s kind of dull.”

Husband: “Oh, it’ll be obvious when the time comes.”

In the last frame of the recovered footage with a discernible image, a flash like the rising sun can be seen out of McCool’s window.

The Columbia Crew Survival Report picks up where the flight deck recording cuts out. Note that while the flight deck video was released by NASA within a month of the accident, the dialog above was not referenced in the report. From this moment on, the crew of Columbia is reduced to an axiomatic set in a dimension of contingencies. The end of their observable and thus comprehensible humanity marked the beginning of their unknowable, inhuman existence:

A master timeline of the accident from entry interface to total disintegration was constructed through witness video and recovered debris. Studying the burn patterns and charred material of the harnesses and seats allowed investigators to determine whether safety procedures were adequately followed. Mapping the personal effects of crew members and the geometry of debris to the trajectory of the crew module determined the order of systems and structural failure.

There is a care with which the bodies of the crew are described, absent yet bursting from the systematic destruction of the vessel. “Orders within the middeck/flight deck groups cannot be determined conclusively, but it appears that seat 6 and seat 7 equipment items were first out of the middeck and seat 4 equipment was first out of the flight deck. “ (3-61) Signs of life were determined by onboard instrument data: suit pressure checks performed, oxygen levels normal.

But as far as NASA was concerned, it was the loss of signal between Columbia and Mission Control Center that effectively pulled the plug on the crew’s biochemical existence and guaranteed their complete denaturalization into the shuttle’s fuselage. The human body was reduced to the composition of its molecular components: the same carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen that make up the stars.

It is believed that within seconds of the depressurization of their Crew Module, the astronauts were at least terminally unconscious, if not already dead. Recovered debris reveals otherwise: “the APU Operate switches on flight deck panel R2 were in positions that were consistent with an attempted restart of two of the three APUs.” (3-80) William McCool’s final moments spent fighting through terror, radiation, hypoxia, and cyanosis to save his friends were reduced to the execution of a futile emergency procedure. The sanctity of human life became the aestheticization of the machine: to make beautiful the human body which is forever in decay.

Remember that the purpose of this report is to outline recommendations for design and policy that will increase the survivability of human spaceflight. The denaturalization of the crew into the fuselage of the shuttle at the moment their survival was called into question reveals that NASA’s model of the human body can only produce itself through mechanical contingencies. In this sense they can be considered extraterrestrial: a character of the human which is delineated by the imposition of an antihuman experience upon technological inadequacies. The autoimmunity of human bio-logic echoes on in the lives of the crew who are reduced to these numbered items: accident prone variables in an equation for survival in worst-case scenarios.

Time of Useful Consciousness.

As is the case with most aviation and spaceflight accidents, the cause of structural failure boiled down to the lack of discipline in pre-flight equipment checks, the prioritization of vessel and systems design over the survival of the human bodies who will occupy them, and pressure from the military-industrial complex to invigorate the public’s trust in their capacity to manufacture the future. [For more on the “normalization of deviance“ check out Nick’s blog on Rocket Lab]

NASA’s funding dictates that research programs must be focused on the creation of products and systems that master the forces that could potentially impact vessels destined for spaceflight. This policy has resulted in the lethal construction of crew survivability as something contingent on the ability to calculate and project safe environments: "the reels were not defective; they were simply not designed to lock under the conditions the forebody experienced." (xxiv) NASA can only imagine the modification of the fuselage, not the human body.

As though we needed proficiency in rotational dynamics in order to plan for the fact that a human body could not survive de-orbit without adequate protection.

There is, at once, a total minimization and veneration for the sacrifice of humans who willingly blast themselves up into space knowing that it is likely they won’t return. Rescue equipment was only positioned and available at the launch pad after Apollo 1; a jettison-able hatch, personal oxygen systems, parachutes, rafts, and pressure suits after Challenger. The bodies of Columbia’s crew were redacted from the report because they would force us to admit that even the excellence of scientific intellectualism has no explanation for the immense terror and pain of an unimaginable yet unpreventable death.

The human, in placing itself at the center of the mythology of spaceflight, designates itself as the necessary collateral damage of its technological progression. In doing this we make travel through space, at best, a survivable accident. Astronauts are dead because we take the cold and impassive character of space as its only possible reality.

And what this reveals to us is that the problem with an imagined future which uses physics for a base language is that it describes a world where humans can’t live but do anyway. Physics imagines the world as a geometry of forces in which the human is not afforded a point of perspective: an experience of life that would be impossible for us to be comfortable in.

But who any longer still fears the impossible?