Twilight Zone: The Crash NASA Didn't Investigate

The Morpheus lander crashed andburned, and critics say NASA never fully investigated what went wrong.

"They didn't do an investigation on this," Clement says. "Why? Because they're hacking this. They got lucky nobody got hurt."

For Keith Cowing, who helps run NASA Watch, the issues surrounding Morpheus stem from the culture. "This is kind of a problem with NASA these days," Cowing tells the Press. "They like to walk around with a 'Yes, I'm A Rocket Scientist' button, but rockets blow up, and a lot of people don't necessarily want to, as they say, 'have a bad day.' That was Morpheus."

According to Cousins, the two major issues besetting the earlier tests — an unsuccessful engine kill and a lack of fire prevention — came to a head in August's crash. "They had no provision to 'safe' the lander, i.e., shut the engine off, in the event of the [software] failure...while there were only two guys with fire extinguishers to attempt to put out the fire," Cousins says. Clement, meanwhile, says that NASA initially claimed the issue stemmed from Morpheus's Space Integrated Global Positioning System/Inertial Navigation System (SIGI), provided by Honeywell. Such a cause is plausible — but SIGI was cited as an issue in the TT2 mishap, which should have alerted NASA to potential errors therein. Even that reason, however, doesn't sit well with Clement. "That's bullshit," he says. "It wasn't a hardware problem. [NASA] tested that SIGI all the time. This was all software...Yet it was blamed on another company. It's not our fault, and then there's no review done on it."

In August 2012, the Morpheus lander crashed during a test flight in eastern Florida, sparking a massive fireball and setting the project back for months.
YouTube
In August 2012, the Morpheus lander crashed during a test flight in eastern Florida, sparking a massive fireball and setting the project back for months.
The Morpheus lander, reconstructed here, is designed to test both an autonomous landing mechanism and a new fuel mixture of liquid oxygen and liquid methane.
The Morpheus lander, reconstructed here, is designed to test both an autonomous landing mechanism and a new fuel mixture of liquid oxygen and liquid methane.

And that is what NASA stuck to. In a follow-up message to his staff, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden noted that he considered the Morpheus project — millions down the drain, and the prototype completely destroyed — a success:

"This small project was formulated at [Johnson Space Center] as a way to develop, understand, and demonstrate some new technologies and to build the capabilities of our work force in a rapid engineering cycle environment — in the vernacular, learn fast, fail forward. I am sure some might think of Morpheus as a failure since a significant piece of hardware crashed and burned while under test. Contrary to this view, I regard Morpheus as a success."

"We've gotten away with this 'fail forward' crap — what the hell is that about?" Clement says. "It's almost like, 'Hey, let's light a pack of firecrackers and see what happens.'"

Indeed, it seems Bolden considered it such a success to this date, 11 months later, that no follow-up investigation has ever come to light. That apparent lack of investigation was made all the starker after the Press received the follow-up report about an accident that took place within the Active Response Gravity Offload System (­ARGOS), set to test astronauts in no- and low-gravity situations. On January 16, a "test participant...was un-­intentionally dropped, approximately 12 to 18 inches (30.5 to 45.7 cm) in the vertical (-Z) direction." The participant, fortunately, was not significantly injured, though "the un-intended drop could have been as much as 4 to 5 feet."

The report on the ARGOS accident was damning. "ARGOS was an engineering development project that was treated as if it were operational," the report, issued last March, read. "The ARGOS team was beset with funding issues from the outset. This drove the project to experience 'Groupthink' and seek additional non-developmental users which gave the appearance that the system was operational."

But at least there was a follow-up. It seems there's been far less — or even nothing — following the Morpheus crash. "You could see that this is a different way of doing business, that we should expect failures — well, yeah, duh — but the problem I see is the pattern," says Clement. "They hide behind the 'prototype' word, but they truly intend to deliver this Morpheus crap once they get it to 'work.' This is their method: Build a prototype without any oversight, then call it ready for production and deliver. Just like ARGOS."

This shift, this pattern, is hampering NASA moving forward. According to Clement, the trend will only continue.

"We're using a new, evolutionary approach to developing this — used to be called faster-better-cheaper — and it's a complete, utter failure," he adds. "And we're doing it again."

For links to the documents in this story and a video of the crash, visit blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs.

casey.michel@houstonpress.com

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
All
 
My Voice Nation Help
2 comments
sherye.johnson
sherye.johnson

What happened to all of the comments?

CoryGarcia
CoryGarcia moderator communitymanager

@sherye.johnson The piece of software that runs our comments section has a bug that's creating multiple instances of comment threads, which leads to comments sometimes being bounced off pages. We're working hard to get things back to normal. 


Rest assured, we're totally investigating this incident.

 
Houston Concert Tickets
Loading...