Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Code of Silence

Lightning yesterday near the SpaceX Launch Control Center. Image source: Florida Today.

The SpaceX Orbcomm OG2 launch was postponed yet again yesterday, when a lightning storm settled over Cape Canaveral and rained down apocalypse upon Pad 40.

Unofficial reports had lightning strikes near the pad, as well as a brush fire.

Another apocalyptic storm was unleashed yesterday afternoon, but this one was on the Internet.

The launch window opened at 5:46 PM EDT. Shortly before 3:00 PM, messages began appearing on Twitter that SpaceX had said it would not webcast this launch. Journalists tweeted that SpaceX was not responding to media requests.

SpaceX imposed a media blackout.

At 5:00 PM, Spaceflight Now posted it had received this email from SpaceX Senior Director of Marketing and Communications Emily Shanklin:

SpaceX spokesperson Emily Shanklin says there is “no special reason” the company is not webcasting today's launch.

“We've actually been ready to move away from the webcasts for awhile,” she wrote in an email to Spaceflight Now. “It takes a lot of resources but the main reason is these launches are becoming more routine and the full webcast isn't really appropriate anymore.”

Lightning struck the Twitterverse.

Impromptu efforts began to find people with cameraphones on the Cape who might be able to stream the launch live, or at least record it.

Others organized instant protests, bombarding the @SpaceX and @ElonMusk Twitter accounts with appeals to reinstate the webcast.

The worst consequence was raising suspicions that SpaceX was trying to hide something, at a time when it wages a fierce publicity battle with United Launch Alliance. ULA streams its launches, even classified military missions, and only cuts the feed when it's necessary for security.

For a company that prides itself on its social media status, it was a huge mistake that cost SpaceX credibility in some quarters.

I suspect that, once the Orbcomm mission launches, we'll find out the true reason for the blackout. My guess is that Elon Musk wanted to take pressure off his team by letting them work without media distraction.

A private company launching another private company's payload is under no obligation to share their work with the media. But at a time when SpaceX needs to convince Congress that it's worthy of launching military payloads, going dark is not the right move.

In law enforcement, the Code of Silence means that fellow officers don't report improper behavior by colleagues. I was in law enforcement out of college, and witnessed it many times myself.

Lack of public scrutiny invites the Code of Silence. It can create the public perception, even if unwarranted, that SpaceX has something to hide.

The real cause of the STS-51L Challenger accident was management's failure to acknowledge the limitations of the Space Shuttle. As recalled in this 2012 National Public Radio article, Morton Thiokol (now ATK) engineer Roger Boisjoly and others repeatedly warned the Solid Rocket Boosters could fail in cold weather, but were ignored by NASA management.

Armed with the data that described that possibility, Boisjoly and his colleagues argued persistently and vigorously for hours. At first, Thiokol managers agreed with them and formally recommended a launch delay. But NASA officials on a conference call challenged that recommendation.

“I am appalled,” said NASA's George Hardy, according to Boisjoly and our other source in the room. “I am appalled by your recommendation.”

Another shuttle program manager, Lawrence Mulloy, didn't hide his disdain. “My God, Thiokol,” he said. “When do you want me to launch — next April?”

These words and this debate were not known publicly until our interviews with Boisjoly and his colleague. They told us that the NASA pressure caused Thiokol managers to “put their management hats on,” as one source told us. They overruled Boisjoly and the other engineers and told NASA to go ahead and launch.

NASA managers put pressure upon themselves because of the media spotlight on the launch due to the presence on board of Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe. Another reason was that, a decade before, NASA had promised Congress that Shuttle would fly once a week, which of course turned out to be untrue. Congress was raising questions, and the Reagan administration wanted to commercialize access to space through Shuttle, so NASA began to cut corners hoping to increase their launch rate.

Because NASA executives worked in an era before the Internet and social media, there was little transparency in their decision-making process. They made the wrong call. It resulted in the loss of Challenger and its crew.

The result was that NASA became a far more insular organization, an attitude noted years later by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

SpaceX has so far made the right call every time when it wasn't safe to launch. But a media blackout suggests a lack of confidence in their ability to make the right decision.

Friendship 7 was repeatedly delayed by one cause or another, yet a more open NASA shared every delay with the public. John Glenn eventually orbited the Earth, and the delays were forgotten.

SpaceX needs to demonstrate it has the Right Stuff and resume the webcasts.

UPDATE June 22, 2014 7:30 PM EDT — SpaceX announced it would resume webcasts today, however the launch was postponed again due to bad weather and “a potential concern identified during pre-flight checks ... The rocket will remain vertical on the launch pad with the next available launch opportunity targeting Tuesday, June 24th.”

1 comment:

  1. For the record, ORBCOMM is a public company, traded on the NASDAQ symbol ORBC.