"PC" Environmentalism Doomed Columbia
Experts now believe the foam is the "metaphorical smoking gun [that] should be painted green."
During the Clinton-Gore administration, NASA was under pressure from EPA head Carol Browner, to refrain from using Freon in its thermal-insulating foam. The fluorocarbon caused damage to the earth's ozone layer, according the powerful green lobby.
As a result, NASA substituted a politically correct foam that did not hold up as well under extreme temperatures.
Hannes Hacker, an aerospace engineer, said that the inferior foam was "at least a contributing factor, if not the major factor. The risk of a piece of debris falling off and causing damage to the space shuttle's thermal-protection system was [more than] 10 times greater with the new material than with the old material."
NASA mechanical systems engineer, Greg Katnik, wrote in the 1997 "Field Journal" report that "there had been significant damage to the [ceramic] tiles" of the first shuttle launches that used the new material.
John Berlau, author of the informative "Lost in Space" article for Insight Magazine, writes, "NASA, as well as the EPA officials who pressed it to stop using Freon, may have a lot to answer for."
Lost In Space
But many experts looking at the tragedy that killed seven astronauts say there is a deeper cause. They say that the metaphorical smoking gun should be painted green.
Because of demands that the agency help to front for environmentalism, and under pressure from the Clinton-Gore administration's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) led by Carol Browner, NASA had stopped using Freon, a fluorocarbon that greens claim damages the ozone layer, in its thermal-insulating foam. NASA found in 1997 after the first launch with the politically correct substitute that the Freon-free foam had destroyed nearly 11 times as many of the shuttle's ceramic tiles as had the foam containing Freon. The politicized foam was less sticky and more brittle under extreme temperatures. But apparently little or nothing was done to resist the environmentalist politicians.
"It was at least a contributing factor, if not a major factor," says Hannes Hacker, an aerospace engineer and former flight controller at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston who is affiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. Hacker tells Insight: "The risk of a piece of debris falling off and causing significant damage to the space shuttle's thermal-protection system was [more than] 10 times greater with the new material than with the old material."
Officials at NASA have confirmed to this magazine that the destructive role of the new foam will be covered in a report on the causes of the space-shuttle disintegration scheduled for release in August. "It's a part of the investigation," says Lt. Col. Tyrone "Woody" Woodyard, spokesman for NASA's Columbia Accident Investigation Board. "The application of the foam is certainly something the board is looking at." Woodyard said he could not comment on specifics until the accident report was released.
NASA, as well as the EPA officials who pressed it to stop using Freon, may have a lot to answer for. In a 1997 "Field Journal" report of the first shuttle launches to use the new foam, NASA mechanical-systems engineer Greg Katnik noted that "there had been significant damage to the [ceramic] tiles" and "the extent of damage at the conclusion of this mission was not 'normal.'" There had been 308 "hits" to the tiles, and 132 were greater than 1 inch, penetrating more than half of the 2-inch tiles. Some slashes were as long as 15 inches. "Over 100 tiles had been removed ... because they were irreparable," according to the report.
Katnik fingered the new foam as a cause of the damage. "It is suspected that large amounts of foam separated from the external tank and impacted the orbiter," he wrote. Since the beginning of the space-shuttle program in the 1980s, the shuttle tanks had been sprayed with insulating material to keep the nitrogen and oxygen fuels from overheating. But Katnik warned directly that "because of NASA's goal to use environmentally friendly products, a new method of 'foaming' the external tank had been used for this mission." He called officially for "investigating the consideration that some characteristics of the new foam may not be known for the ascent environment."
Katnik wasn't the only one to raise doubts about the new "environmentally correct" foam. According to Knight Ridder News Service, a retired engineering manager for Lockheed Martin Corp., the company that assembles NASA's tanks, said at a conference last September that developing the Freon-free foam had "been much more difficult than anticipated" and that the new foam "resulted in unanticipated program impacts, such as foam loss during flight." The manager noted that on the 1997 launch, the same one Katnik had studied, NASA had to replace nearly 11 times more damaged tiles than after a previous mission that had used the old foam.
With all these warnings from experts, why did NASA go ahead with the less-safe foam? And who is to blame for putting environmentalism ahead of the lives of our astronauts? Much is unclear about where responsibility rests. Browner's EPA aggressively was pushing industry and government agencies to stop using Freon, going beyond what the Montreal Protocol treaty required. Yet NASA scientists also had been drawn into hyping the scare about the ozone layer being damaged by fluorocarbons.
The sad thing, critics say, is that NASA and policymakers seemed to have learned very little from the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, where the switch to another eco-friendly material - due to another hyped scare having become politically correct - also played a large role in the tragedy. "The bottom line is that in both of these cases NASA made or was forced to make design changes based on claims that are not scientifically established," Hacker observes.
The nation was stunned by the explosion of the Challenger minutes after liftoff for a mission that eagerly had been anticipated by the public because one of its crew members was Christa McAuliffe, the first schoolteacher in space. When she and her six fellow astronauts were killed immediately the cause was established as hot gases burning through an allegedly faulty O-ring joint in one of the solid rocket boosters. NASA was criticized for launching in cold weather, and some in the media found a way to blame President Ronald Reagan by speculating that the administration wanted the shuttle to be in orbit during the State of the Union address. (The respected and independent Rogers Commission that investigated the Challenger explosion found no evidence of political pressure for the launch.)
At a Washington hearing a few months after the disaster, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman put some of the O-ring material in a glass of ice water and then demonstrated that it no longer was flexible. But largely overlooked was the fact that NASA had just switched to a new type of putty to protect the O-rings from hot gases.
Why had NASA risked using a new type of putty when the old stuff had worked successfully on nine previous missions? Because the previous putty contained tiny amounts of politically incorrect asbestos, and its producer, the Fuller O'Brien Co. of San Francisco, stopped making the product for fear of lawsuits after asbestos was made the subject of media scare stories and alarmist claims by environmental groups. Malcolm Ross, who had studied asbestos as a research scientist for 41 years at the U.S. Geological Survey, notes that the U.S. Air Force also suddenly had two launch failures with its Titan 34-D rockets after substituting for the asbestos-based putty. This followed a string of 50 successful launches with the old putty.
"Fuller O'Brien made this product going back long before World War II," says Ross, now a scientific adviser to the free-market Consumer Alert organization. He tells Insight, "It was putty used in the aircraft industry for all sorts of purposes." Like Feynman, Ross did his own experiment by putting the old and new putties in his freezer to simulate the cold temperatures of the fatal shuttle launch. "The [asbestos] putty was still quite puttylike, quite pliable," Ross recalls. "The substitute putty got very hard and wasn't sticky. You can imagine that under cool temperature the Fuller O'Brien product was much superior."
The space shuttle isn't the only instance where the replacement of asbestos with more eco-friendly materials may have resulted in tragic loss of life. As veteran journalist Ralph de Toledano detailed in Insight, the decision not to use the heat-retardant asbestos to protect steel supports on the highest floors of the World Trade Center when they were built in the 1970s meant that they collapsed faster than they otherwise would have, leaving less time for people to escape during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 [see the last word, Dec. 3, 2001].
And the really tragic part about it, says Ross, is that the use of asbestos in the space shuttle and in office buildings, and other modern employment of it, poses only minimal risk to the public. Indeed, removal of asbestos poses a greater risk of exposure in many instances, critics say. In the Word War II shipyards of the 1940s, "there were indeed a large number of asbestos workers who were greatly harmed, but as usual the environmentalists take this to a point where they want to abandon the use entirely because of a little bit of misuse," Ross says. "The trouble with the environmentalists is they keep twisting the screw, and there's no end to it."
Insight tried to talk to leading environmentalists about the space tragedies but to no avail. A spokeswoman for Environmental Defense, which has sounded the alarms against both asbestos and Freon, told this reporter, "We're not really working on this." A spokeswoman for former EPA director Browner said she was "out of the office" for a few days. The publicist for Al Gore's office in Nashville said Gore wasn't giving interviews at the present time.
In the years between the Challenger and Columbia explosions, NASA lent its name and prestige to many green crusades, particularly those of Gore for "spaceship Earth." And ironically, critics say, in the early 1990s the politicians at the agency curried favor with the left by playing a crucial role in hyping the ozone scare that led to actions partly responsible for the predicament it found itself in with the Freon-free foam. In February 1992, for instance, NASA announced that satellite and other measurements showed chlorine-monoxide molecules - thought to be derived from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and to destroy ozone - were increasing inside the arctic polar vortex. At a press conference, NASA raised the specter of a rapidly approaching hole in the ozone layer, which deflects the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays.
"We believe now that the probability of significant ozone loss taking place in any given year is higher than it has been before," said James Anderson, the NASA project leader. Media stories immediately followed with horrific scenarios predicting hundreds of thousands of cases of new skin cancer resulting from ultraviolet exposure. Then-senator Gore, who chaired a Senate subcommittee responsible for NASA funding, captured the moment to warn that there soon would be an "ozone hole over Kennebunkport," the Maine summer home of then-president George H.W. Bush, if Congress didn't rapidly phase out Freon and other CFCs. Spooked by an international campaign to bless all this as indisputable and scientific, the Senate passed a resolution 95 to zero to phase out CFCs by 1995, five years sooner than the 1987 Montreal Protocol required, and Bush issued an executive order requiring a phaseout by this date.
But, as Micah Morrison documented in Insight [see "The Wizards of Ozone," April 6, 1992], many prudent scientists, including some who worked for NASA, dissented from the dire predictions. They noted that natural factors such as storms, winds and volcanoes affect ozone measurements. When chlorine monoxide went back to normal levels in a few weeks, NASA stood silently by without issuing so much as a press release to put the anomalous "crisis" in perspective. "We aren't going to put out [another] press release until we have a complete picture and a complete story to tell," NASA spokesman Brian Dunbar told Morrison.
In the Insight article, Morrison noted that NASA, which in the early 1990s was "concerned to preserve its share of the federal budget and carve out a new role for itself ... reaped a bonanza of publicity as guardian of the ozone." After Gore became vice president, no doubt with an eye on its appropriations, NASA continued to raise the alarm for various environmental scares. "Earth is a planet on fire! The Earth is burning," proclaimed NASA senior research scientist Joel Levine in a 1995 speech quoted by the the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk.
So when its own foam was declared to be environmentally unfriendly, NASA officials apparently rushed to change it, even minimizing some of the safety consequences, according to some critics. "They wanted to be super-green," says S. Fred Singer, the atmospheric scientist who invented the ozone-meter device to measure the ozone layer in the 1950s. He now is a critic of environmental alarmism as president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project.
Even so, NASA reportedly applied for an "essential-use" exemption from the EPA in the face of resistance from the Browner-led agency. The exemption did not come through until 2001, according to the New York Times, after President George W. Bush had taken office and Browner was out. Her EPA went beyond even what the Montreal Protocol required and gave out essential-use exemption for CFCs very sparingly. The agency even tried to ban lifesaving asthma inhalers that contained CFCs [see "EPA and FDA Put Ecology Above Kids," Oct. 20, 1997]. A NASA spokesman says he does not recall the 2001 exemptions.
The mills of the gods grind slowly. When NASA finally got its exemption, according to the New York Times, it used the Freon-based foam only "in a few spots on the shuttle fleet." And a spokesman for the company that makes the new foam, North Carolina Foam Industries, told the Los Angeles Times in February that NASA never called the company about any problems. Aware of all this and reflecting on the space-shuttle tragedies, former NASA flight controller Hacker concludes that NASA and its regulators must disabuse themselves of the theory that "nature has intrinsic value and it is evil for man to tamper with nature. In practice, this results in death."
John Berlau is a writer for Insight magazine. Summer reporter Adam Heieck contributed to this article.
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]