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Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2003 / 5 Adar I, 5763

Roger Simon

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Our mourning will soon - justifiably - give way to anger | Shock gives way to grief, and grief to anger. And there is going to be a lot of anger, I predict, over the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia.

Sometimes tragedies are acts of G-d and sometimes tragedies are acts of man, and so far this tragedy has all the earmarks of a manmade failure.

But let us not pre-judge. After all, NASA says it really, really wants to get to the bottom of things, right?

And just look at how NASA behaved last time seven astronauts were incinerated.

On Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger space shuttle developed a problem in its propulsion system. The right rocket booster sprang a leak in the frigid air and, 73 seconds after takeoff, the shuttle exploded, killing all on board.

A company called Morton Thiokol made that faulty booster.

That explosion was investigated by something called the Rogers Commission, named for its chairman William Rogers, former attorney general under Dwight Eisenhower and former secretary of state under Richard Nixon.

The Rogers Commission eventually found that the seven were not killed by divine intervention or by the inherent dangers of space flight. No, it found the astronauts were killed by massive human foul-ups.

This is the way The New York Times put it: "In a low-key but stern indictment, the commission's 256-page final report chronicled a long history of engineering and managerial mistakes, of refusing to recognize the serious problems with the solid-fuel booster rockets, of a breakdown in quality control programs and of repeated failures to pass vital safety information along from lower levels to key decision-makers.

"The report also said that Morton Thiokol Inc. had designed a faulty rocket joint, had taken no appropriate action to fix it and had opposed suggestions made by NASA engineers in the late 1970s that the joint be redesigned."

Not that the Rogers Commission blamed Thiokol for anything. No, the commission was very careful not to blame anybody. As Rogers said in a Rose Garden ceremony, "We were not asked to assess blame, and we have not assessed blame."

Rogers said that in a sense "a lot of us are to blame" for the accident, including the Ronald Reagan administration, Congress and the media, "all of whom made the optimistic assumption that the space shuttle had become operational instead of remaining a risky developmental program."

Got that? Anyone who was bamboozled into believing that the space shuttle was safe was just as guilty as the people who failed to make sure it was safe.

Me, I don't quite buy that argument.

But in December 1986, the federal government and Morton Thiokol agreed to pay more than $10 million to the families of the Challenger astronauts.

That sounds like a lot of dough, but it averages out to only about $1.4 million per family. That same year, a judge in New York awarded $7 million to a baby who was treated negligently at birth. In Florida, a couple got $7.2 million because their insurance was wrongfully canceled. In Maryland, a 17-year-old boy was awarded $4.1 million in a diving accident.

What happened to Morton Thiokol? In the months following the tragedy, Morton Thiokol, which admitted no wrongdoing in the Challenger explosion, was paid $34.1 million in "bonus incentives" for its "superior performance."

And in 1992, the George M. Low Trophy, which is NASA's annual "quality and excellence" award, was bestowed on Thiokol's Space Operations division.

So don't expect a whole lot from the current investigations into the Columbia disaster and into the private contractors that currently run the shuttle operations.

Because when it gets right down to it, NASA believes in letting bygones be bygones.

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