Monthly Archives: February 2003

Hanging Up The Sweater

Fred Rogers, known to generations of us as Mister Rogers, passed away at the age of 74.  His calm and kind demeanour, the red sweater and his gentleness will be missed. 

There are certain touchstones in our lives that we miss when they are gone.  Mister Rogers was one of them.

The Debate That Never Was

CHAIR:  Welcome to the Great Debate being held simultaneously on CNN and Iraqi State TV for a worldwide audience of millions. 

Our debaters tonight, His Excellency Commander in Chief and President for Life of the Republic of Iraq, Saddam Hussein.  (SPONTANEOUS APPLAUSE GOADED ON BY BAYONETS INTO THE BACKS OF THE AUDIENCE IN IRAQ)

…and his opponent, the President of the United States, George Walker Bush (CHANEY AND RUMSFELD DO THE WOOF WOOF WOOF)

…Our debaters have tossed a coin to determine who goes first, with a one minute opening statement and the winner was Saddam Hussein.  Mister Hussein?  Do you want to go first, or shall Mister Bush go first?


CHAIR: Mister Hussein, are you ready?  The topic is, Do you have weapons of mass destruction and are you a threat to World Peace.  You have one minute, starting now.

SADDAM: George Bush daddy try to kill me and glorious army of Republic of Iraq defend our homeland.  I no have weapons of mass destruction.  I say so.  Except what the stuff we use on Kurds.  No September 11 neither. I say so.  It is so. 

Missiles?  Is fireworks for our nightclubs. 

Food for Oil?  I no starve.  I got Range Rover and lots of gas.  Kuwait?  Never hear of it.  Berets we got.  Lots of berets for women of US who no wear veils with big bouncy breasts and legs showing. 

Israel?  Feh, Is not on map I see.  Glorious army of Iraq for home defense from Evil Empire of United States of America George W Bush.  I die with honour in Glorious Republic of Iraq where everybody vote for me.  Or have eyes cut out by Republican Guard.  Either or. 

Or I hear from email to Libya and exile.  George W Bush has cute wife looks like Dorothy Hamill.  Chelsea Clinton is babe.  You give me Chelsea Clinton and I get outta Baghdad real fast.  You run sandbox. (MORE HYSTERICAL APPLAUSE)

CHAIR:  Time Mister Hussein.  Mister Bush?

GWB: My fellow Americans.  This Evil Empire on the Axis of Evil is against Liberty and Freedom. 

Here are photos of Saddam himself loading poison gas into their nightclub fireworks aimed at a point on the map where Israel is. 

Here’s another of Saddam gouging the eyes out of a voter in Baghdad. 

And another of the Republican Guard, led by Saddam entering a tanning salon in Kuwait City for a tem minute session and a back waxing.

As for my Daddy, I say Your Momma, if she’s still alive.

We can turn your nation into rubble in twenty minutes.

But if you were going into exile, (TALKS OFF SCREEN TO CHENEY) would you take Noelle Bush instead of Chelsea?  And a lifetime subscription to Hustler?

SADDAM: Hell yeah!

GWB: Done.

CHAIR: Thank you gentlemen.  This debate has lasted about as long as the last four Mike Tyson fights and has brought about World Peace.  Good Night.

Whom To Sue

More fallout from Rhode Island and North Carolina as the lawyers get involved in two interesting cases.  The Rhode Island club fire sees everyone connected with the case, the state, the fire marshal office, the band, and the club owners jockeying for position in the court of public opinion.  In North Carolina, where the young girl was given a transplanted set of heart and lungs of the wrong blood type, then a second set with the right specs, sees Duke University Hospital and the parents lining up with the briefcase set.

In an adversarial legal arena, like we have in Canada and the US, you prove that the other guy was totally at fault and damaged you irreparably, to the extent that the only way you (or your estate) can be made better is by the topical application of millions of tax-free dollars in real and punitive damages. 

But I will argue, in both of these cases, that even if there are obvious bad guys who were cavalier with human life and just plain did not give a flying damn, that there should be a limitation on liability.  In both cases, there is much good to come from a complete and open investigation of all sides in the tragedies.  That means getting rid of the lawyers in both cases.  Lawyers, although noble in many causes, are not there to find the problem and fix it.  Lawyers are there to keep their fees coming.

As a hypothetical example, in Rhode Island.  Let’s say the band didn’t get the OK of the club to fire off indoor pyro.  Why did the backing go up so fast?  Was it poorly spec’d?  Did the fire marshal not see that it was flammable?  Was the effects charge mislabelled, designed for a bigger venue but labeled with a smaller margin of safety?  Do the laws regarding indoor effects need to be toughened, or just enforced better?  Was the band clear with the club about the type and kind of effects?  Were there too many people in the club?  Was the club constructed of materials that were not appropriate to that kind of use?  Should EXIT signs be improved?  Are overhead sprinklers mandatory in public meeting places? 

And on and on and on.  We’ll never know, because the lawyers won’t let anyone answer those questions, as they could be construed as admissions of guilt.

In North Carolina, what went wrong that a set of internal organs of the wrong blood type wound up in Jessica?  Is the paperwork good enough?  Is the organ donation system flawed, or is this one of those one-in-a-million completely human mistakes? Do doctors trust too many people to do their part of the job and hope that everything else works? 

I don’t know, but I do know that a prosecution-free investigation without any blame finding repercussions and lawyers, will find out what happened in both cases, leading to improvements in the overall system of how things get done.

Unfortunately, the cynic in me says that a no-fault investigation in either case is not in the best interests of the lawyers, therefore it will never happen. 

The parallel here is aircraft crash investigation.  The National Transportation Safety Board, the Transportation Safety Board and the Civil Aviation Authority in the US, Canada and Britain respectively do not seek to apportion blame.  They seek to find why an event happened through rigorous scientific and evidentiary testing of all the potential reasons why and how an air crash can happen. 

If it were possible in Rhode Island and North Carolina for an investigation into “why” rather than “who”, we would all be better served from these two tragedies.

Alas, the legal eagles are lining up to sue someone.  Notice that nobody is talking about suing the club owners, the band, or the pyrotechnician simply because they don’t have any money.  Rule One is never sue poor people.  Let’s sue the State of Rhode Island, as they have money and we can all get our pay day.  If it turns out that the fireworks company that made the charge is a big multinational, we’ll sue them too, as they have money.  And if Johns Manville made the foam on the backing of the stage, or the ceiling tiles, or the paint, we’ll sue them too, as they have pockets full of cash. 

Same in North Carolina, the family will probably not sue the hospital directly, but the hospital’s insurance carrier, who have deep pockets from all the premiums they collect and the company that made the bracelet that Jessica wore with her blood type because its Becton Dixon and they have deep pockets too as a major medical device manufacturer.  But Bayer made the anti-rejection drugs to keep her transplanted organs from leaping out, and Bayer is big, so let’s include them in this madness.

Madness is the correct term.  We want to know what went wrong and why and how to prevent it from happening again.  That is what we, as a society want from these two tragedies.  Answers and fixes.  Not blame.

Indoor Pyro FYI

Having held a pyrotechnician license for five years, here are the real goods on indoor pyrotechnical effects.

1:  You must have a permit from the local fire department.  No permit?  No pyro.  In Canada, you can’t even order indoor effects charges (pyro) without a special indoor endorsement on your license and a license for each place you plan to let them off.  You can’t get the license without the local fire department being intimately involved in all aspects of the show.  If the local fire department doesn’t like the look of you, or the venue, licenses be dammed, you ain’t getting a permit.

2.  You must demonstrate the current possession of a $1,000,000 PLPD insurance policy for each venue.  Not a group rider, an individual policy per venue. No insurance?  No pyro.

3.  Most indoor, small scale effects charges are what are called ‘cold’ charges, meaning mostly black powder and aluminum:  Very little phosphorus or magnesium in the composition.  Each charge is designed to burn bright but fast and extinguish before the hot parts can hit the floor. 

Most are flash-bangs, which are small black powder charges with some aluminum powder to provide the flash, but not a lot of heat or smoke.  The charge must go high-order very quickly and dissipate even faster.  Fountain streams (or falls), like were used in Rhode Island are specially composited for each granule to light and go out in a very short period of time, gravity providing the illusion of a waterfall of sparkles.  The specification of the effect charge tells you very clearly how far the flammable components will fall.  The manufacturers test the hell out of them, then add a few more feet for safety.

4.  The default rule is always NO.  If you (as the technician) are even the slightest bit unsure about the safety, the answer is NO Fire.  All small-scale indoor effect charges are dangerous, but can’t cause any ruckus if you don’t light them off.  Can a careless technician cause a fire?  Certainly, but your training is always drummed into you that NO is the default.

5: Indoor effects charges using pyrotechnical materials can almost all be duplicated by mechanical effects.  For instance, a flash-bang can be simulated by compressed air and a single-shot high intensity strobe.  Its called a burp-can and makes, essentially, a very loud, compressed air burp and triggers a strobe with a hellacious light at the same time.  No smoke, no flame, no permit needed, but the same effect as a flash-bang. 

Smoke wafting across the stage?  I can rent five different kinds of smoke generators that plug into the wall, like a hair dryer and atomize chemical smoke across an element that produces clouds of thick smoke for Deep Purple cover bands.

Pillars of Flames of Hell?  A fan on its back and silk streamers that are attached to the fan that blow upwards.  A couple of lights on the silk, some red and orange gels in the lights and you have a very real looking pillar of flame.  The Stones used it on Voodoo Lounge, rather than a full propane powered flame generator.  Even works as a medieval torch on the wall of the haunted castle, just some silk, some lights and some electricity.

The simple end to this is:  Someone messed up big time.  I saw the footage this morning at 0530 and it was obvious there were no safety people with extinguishers in hand standing by.  Training says that you must have someone ready to put the effect out if something goes wrong.  Training says you don’t fire the effect if there is a potential for something to go wrong, or someone is out of place. 

Two good CO2 extinguisher shots on that backdrop would have put it out almost instantly or suppressed it enough that the club could have been evacuated without the astounding loss of life that resulted.

Other deeply concerning things that have been mentioned.  No sprinklers.  This is just not good in the year 2003 for any commercial building, especially one that hosts many people in a crowded area.  No emergency lights?  Shoot, that’s just stupid.  Adding to those outrages, I’d bet their were probably only three exits in the whole place and one was most likely chained shut. 

Where the hell was the Fire Department inspection?  Fire Departments in most states and provinces have the authority to enter any public facility at any time to look for safety violations and to shut them down until things are fixed.  Expect to see Fire Departments across the continent step up their inspections of bars, night clubs, social clubs and party halls.  This is as it should be and any club owner who cries too much about ‘its costing me too much to put in those emergency lights’ should be invited to go into another line of business.  This is also why some cities have anti-rave ordinances.  Not for the drug use, really, but for the complete lack of any kind of safety for the patrons in the event of fire.

Damn shame those people in Rhode Island had to burn to death and those others in Chicago had to be trampled to death.  But if there is little or no inspection, or inspection without teeth, then there are always those who will cut corners to the point of the unimaginable happening in their clubs.

Tomz Tipz

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge announced his Operation Ready to put some focus on the home front preparations for Bad Things.  They’re mostly common-sense:  Have an Emergency Kit, Water, Medicines, First Aid Kit, battery-powered radio and spare batteries, food and the rest of the things we’ve been told we need in our houses at all times.  Except Tom Ridge missed a few things:

A can opener:  Nothing like being trapped in your personal bunker for a week, with cans of food and nothing stronger than a #2 pencil to open the tins.

Liquor: Face it, with the Apocalypse happening outside, you’ll need a drink or two to settle your nerves.  Should it be single-malt? Wine?  Beer? What about mix and garnish?  If we’re going to stay in the bunker, we DO need bar snacks, don’t we?

A screened off area for some kind of Porta-Potty.  After all, if the whole family is squeezed into the bunker, do you want to watch Aunt Esther taking a dump after the fourth day of the MexiCasa Dried Habanero Dip?  I think an air-freshener might be good too.

Swim fins.  Kids don’t go anywhere without swim fins.  Just look at the television commercials, all kids have swim fins for the hotel pool.  Don’t tell the kids we’re all going into the bunker, just tell them we’re playing ‘vacation’ in the ‘basement hotel’.

Digital Cable.  You have to keep up with the devastation and CNN just gives you the American perspective.  BBC World Service is on Digital Cable, hence, you must have Digital Cable.

A comfy sofa.  If we learned nothing from the September 11th terror attacks, sitting on the sofa for two solid days with your mouth open, unblinking and uncomprehending, is that good seating is imperative for Back Health.  And since you’ll have to dig out of your bunker when it all settles out, you should take care of your back.

The Seinfeld “The Contest” Episode.  Laughter is always the best medicine, so says Reader’s Digest.  Laughing while your lungs melt should ease the tension of the End of Days.  Get a VCR to go with the Digital Cable.

A Wal-Mart.  You’ll need jumbo bags of Reese’s Pieces to keep the kids quiet when they find out the ‘vacation in the basement hotel’ doesn’t have a pool, Nintendo, or a PlaySpace.  Only Wal-Mart has the volume pricing you’ll need.  After all, it’s going to take some money to rebuild your life after utter devastation of the planet, so save a buck or two now and top up your 401(k) or RRSP.

A guitar.  Singing Cum-By-Yah with the family around the fires of Damnation is so much better with accompaniment.

Guns.  Lots of Guns.  And ammunition. Lots of ammunition.

Tom Ridge’s personal phone number, or the iPaq with the lawyers on speed-dial.  After all, if Tom didn’t tell you all the things you should have in your bunker, you should sue him.


Today is the international day of Peace Protest.  Perfectly fine, as membership in some kind of democracy involves some rights and obligations. To wit:

1.  Vote.  Voting is the essential keystone of democracy.  Majority rules, even in Florida.  Mark your X, have your say, win graciously, lose graciously.  Those who do not vote are not entitled to or engage in any of the other rights and obligations. Even if you have to hold your nose to do it, vote.

2. Listen.  Your elected representative is exactly that:  YOURS.  You own him or her and if they forget that little point, remind them.  Sometimes listening to the elected representative will tell you more about their stand and how it either matches with yours, or deviates from yours.

3. Think.  After you have heard someone speak, be it the government or someone with a contrary opinion, let it sink in.  Does their position make sense to you?  Is it sane, rational, or delusional?  Is it backed up by facts that you can check, or just ‘they say’ assumptions. 

4. Speak.  You are entitled to complain about governance. If you are not heard from then your silence is considered acceptance. Speaking, even in a forum as obscure as RoadDave is perfectly acceptable as it gives others something to think about.  They might not agree with you, but listening and thinking about what you say may, or may not convince them of your point of view.

The reason I’ve listed these four, simple, points is this:  Raytheon Presents The Gulf War II, brought to you by Lockheed-Martin (c) looks like it is going to happen, regardless of what Hans Blix and the Hot Licks has to say.  My position has always been War is Bad.  But if you’re going to fight, do it hard, nasty and fast, come First, then go home.

Other people and organizations do not share my point of view.  However, this list forces an obligation on both sides of the argument.  You must let those who do not agree have their say and listen to them. 

Don’t automatically call someone who thinks further inspections are a waste of time or the only path to peace, a hawk or dove or war-monger, or ostrich.  This means no detention camps for peaceniks or fighters.  After the decision is made, in whichever direction it goes, we all pull together.  We’ve had our say, we’ve listened and now we act together.

Jacko The Wacko

I did the unseemly thing last night.  I watched Dateline on NBC replay the Martin Bashir interview with Michael Jackson. 

Just so you know, Martin Bashir is the ink-stained wretch who did the interview the Diana Princess of Wales just about a year before her death.  He works for Granada TV in the UK and is essentially, the heir to the Sir David Frost legacy of solid, investigative, journalistic interviews.  He’s good and he’s honest and he’s truthful.  Martin Bashir’s credentials are solid.

Mr. Jackson, on the other gloved hand, is a celebrity, self-proclaimed King of Pop, Protector of Children, and Role Model for The World.

It was fun watching someone commit career suicide for two hours.  It wasn’t Martin Bashir who fell on his sword.  Jacko basically shot himself in prime time, then bled all over the place.  The usual celebrity fibs were in place and that is an accepted practice today that we will let slide.

The real dangerous part of the whole show was that Jacko let his mouth run.  He came across, to my opinion, as an unwell person.  In his defense, he’s been a ‘celebrity’ since he was about six years old, had some less than ideal family experiences and lives in a celebrity/fame/fortune bubble of security, PR and fears that we can’t always know or understand.

But Holy Mother of Pearl, if he was anyone other than Jacko, he’d be under what is called, a Lieutenant Governor’s Warrant:  Meaning locked up in the Penatanguishine Psychiatric Hospital “until the pleasure of the Lieutenant Governor is known”  Essentially, forever, as an incurable mental patient, dangerous to society.

Face aside (and I am willing to cut him some slack with the pigment stuff and the broken nose that was repaired) his words and ideas are those of someone who has lost touch with reality and has enough money to do whatever the hell he wants.  This wealth gives him the label of ‘eccentric’. 

If you or I devoted out lives to creating an amusement park in the back yard, having sleepovers with children and talking about the innocence of children being the basis for World Peace, then the label we would get is ‘insane’.

All that was really missing was Jacko admitting that there is a special radio station telling him to Love Children For World Peace and Elvis saying he’s glad Jacko ‘ain’t shankin’ his lil’ girl no more’. 

Had Jacko admitted to the Special Radio Station, then the powers that be would be almost certainly required to come by with the big net and the happy truck.  But, wisely, he stayed just this side of the line thanks to the layers of hangers-on, legal eagles and image stylists who drink from the same water fountain as Jacko.

Will Jacko ever do another “Thriller” or “Bad”?  Probably not, he’s seeing the effects of time on his talents and moves.  Which is sad, as both the aforementioned albums were very good, but the knees give out and the pipes give up over time, even with the best of the best.

Colin Does His Thing

Watched the Colin Powell, “Live At The UN” Show on CNN… 

No music, no dancing, no jokes, no laser light show, no confetti cannons, no Silly String or appearances by J. Lo. and Ben Affleck.  Just some talking head, some photos and some graphics.  A merely OK PowerPoint show, but that was about it.

Oh, he also did the evidence thing on Iraq.  Looks convincing enough. 

There will always be a percentage that think all this is a Conspiracy by the same folks who offed JFK, run the Black Helicopters near Area 51, control the Monetary Supply from Zurich, manipulate Oil Prices, change newspaper headlines after the fact and make sure that any UFO photos are suppressed along with the mystery device that allows cars to get 100 miles per gallon on plain tap water.

I’m putting my 2 cents worth on Feb 14.  Ramadan ends at sunset on the 13th of Feb.  This is not good.  Marylou will upset as Feb 14th is her birthday, so Geo W Little Tree and General Tommy Weiners might reconsider the date. 

Move it to the 15th, if only to make sure everything lights off on a Saturday.  Better for traffic, as most folks are at home.

Evidence? Oh..well…

With the Gulf War (Raytheon Presents: The Gulf War II Brought To You By Lockheed-Martin (c)) sequel overshadowed by Columbia breaking up on re-entry, the American Administration has bought some time to come up with the goods.  By the goods, I mean the convincing evidence that Iraq is hiding their candy.

As most have seen, the backing for the war is not 100%: There are people who think its not a done deal, as is their right in a democracy.  They want to see the goods.

They want to see Colin Powell or Gen. Tommy Franks up on the stage with Ari (Mister Friendly) Fleischer with some pictures of Saddam Hussein standing next to a Scud missile, personally loading it up with nerve gas and radioactive waste, to fire off at Israel, Kuwait and France.  I suspect that even if such a picture existed, such level of evidence would still not convince a small percentage.  I can live with that percentage. 

Even in such a screwed up time as the Bay of Pigs CIA invasion of Cuba and the whole Cuban Missal Crisis (circa 1961-1962) the Administration put up the pictures from U-2 flights showing the launchers and missiles being loaded into Cuba.  “Here’s the Goods.  See this?  Bad Thing.”  The polloi bought in.  Castro Bad.  Missiles Bad.  Kick Their Ass.

The same should hold true for Raytheon Presents: The Gulf War II Brought To You By Lockheed-Martin (c).  Show us the goods.  Tell us what the hell we’re looking at and we’ll go along in all likelihood.  It is patently obvious to anyone with even minimum mental skills (Congress, Parliament) that Saddam Hussein is a bad guy.  But being a Bad Guy is not quite enough to get your ass kicked.

If the US has information that puts the lock on it, show it.  It doesn’t even have to hold up to Lance Ito-Johnny Cochrane kind of rules of evidence (Yak think?’s in, babe) but just has to be obvious enough that the average person can say ‘Uh-Huh.”

Then we can Let Slip The Dogs Of War with all that entails.

Shuttle Clutter

For those who are not Space Cases (meaning fans of the whole Space Industry) here is a bit of a primer on the Shuttle.

The Shuttle is not that big.  Sort of the size of a DC-9/MD-11 airliner, except fatter through the middle where the payload bay and Canadarm are, but basically DC-9 sized.  There are plenty of other aircraft around that are significantly bigger.

The Shuttle and for that matter the International Space Station or any other satellite, have to be going around 17,400 miles an hour to stay in orbit.  That’s the same speed as the Earth spins at, so less than that speed, it falls, more than that, it goes further away.

The S-turns Columbia was performing when it came apart are perfectly normal.  An S-turn increases the drag of the Shuttle to what little atmosphere is there and slows it down.  If the Shuttle doesn’t slow down, the runway would have to be Arizona and New Mexico.

The Shuttle does not have engines like an airplane when it lands.  The whole thing is a big glider when it comes back to Earth.  However, computers can and do control all the landing flying.  The pilot of the Shuttle can take over, but the only time they really get involved is after the Shuttle is over the end of the runway, the last 30 feet or so of landing. 

Landing an airplane without engines running is called a dead-stick landing and is part of every pilot’s training.  Shuttle pilots train incessantly in landing because without an engine, you only get one shot at landing, which is also why the Shuttle lands quickly, moving more than 250 miles an hour at the end of the runway as it comes in.  This gives them lift from the Shuttle wings and body, rather than falling like a brick. 

Gliders do this too: you dive at the end of the runway to pick up speed, to have lift, to land gently.  A 747-400 Best Glide speed is 163 knots, meaning, yes, you can land a 747 without engines in an emergency as long as the forward speed is more than 163 knots the wings give you lift. 

The problem comes in the big S-turns to slow down the Shuttle.  Going so fast, what little air there is, creates friction and heat.  As an example, the Concorde, grows almost 2 inches as it flies.  That is the heat of the air going over the airplane at speed and altitude and is perfectly normal.

The tiles on the outside of the Shuttle are designed to reflect and dissipate that extreme heat.  These tiles aren’t installed by some guy named Gino singing Italian love songs and smoking a cigarette while laying up the tiles.  Each tile is unique, custom manufactured to fit one specific area of the outside of the shuttle.  The tiles can handle more than 2800 degree heat with no big problem. 

The risky bit is the Shuttle, although covered with these tiles, is made of aluminum, some of it not much thicker than the side of a can of Diet Coke.  And this is the way the vast majority of airplanes are made.  Thin aluminum, riveted, glued and bonded together.  Very strong and very light, but put a disposable aluminum pie plate on the stove at home and see it burn and melt and stink something fierce.  Lots of heat and aluminum is a bad thing, which is why the tiles are on the outside of the Shuttle.

Tiles do fall off the Shuttle on every flight.  A few failures are fine, as long as they are not too many in one place.  Each tile has a service life and a service history.  NASA knows everything about every component on the Shuttle, right down to the casting lot and who has ever touched a part of the Shuttle. 

For instance, to change the toilet paper in the lavatory, they don’t just jam a roll of Charmin in there.  The bum wad is custom manufactured for NASA.  They know the content of various fibres, what plant made it, what chemicals were used to make it, when it was made, what packaging went around it, who and what is in the packaging, when it was shipped, by whom, in what truck, what treatment was done to the paper for space use, how many fibres are loose if the sheet is tossed around, or used to blow your nose and so on.  Then, to swap out some paper, there is a written procedure for the technician, who is observed by his supervisor, who then inspects the work, signs it off and turns it over to a second or third team who inspect and check and then check again. 

The joke is, when the stack of paperwork is the same height as the Shuttle, it’s probably ready to fly. 

Could someone sneak a bomb onboard to kill the Israeli astronaut?  Almost impossible.  NASA knows who made the ink in the pens they use, so a stray box that had not been inspected, inside and out, by dozens of people, is not going to happen.  NASA knows.

There is, as best I can tell, no ‘black box’ on the Shuttle.  The whole Johnson Space Center in Houston is the black box. 

I figure about 2/3rds of the radio bandwidth from the Shuttle to Earth is taken up with telemetry.  Everything is measured, constantly, to make sure its working properly.  There are people at the JSC who do nothing but monitor the status of the lights in the lavatory.  Is it burnt out?  Does it work?  Is it overheating?  Does the circuit breaker have any problems? Will it work when needed?  Is it on now? Is it going to turn off properly?. 

This is why the last message from Columbia was about tire pressures.  Houston was checking the pressure in the Michelins to make sure they wouldn’t land on a flat.  If there was a flat, they’d all know about it as it lost pressure in orbit and have procedures for landing with a flat. The default response to anything abnormal is STOP.

Columbia went through a major overhaul in 2000.  This meant the Shuttle was completely taken apart and everything was x-rayed, tested, tapped and blessed.  In aviation this is called a D-Check, where the airplane is torn down to bare metal and inspected up the wazoo for anything even slightly bad, tired, worn out, or just marginal, then fixed, replaced, or given a bath and cleaned up.  Again, everything is signed off, then checked again and again and again then signed off again.  Then audited.

The Shuttle is also a brew of bad chemistry.  Hydrazine, Peroxide, Kerosene, Liquid Oxygen and so on.  These bad chemicals are needed to provide electricity, oxygen, water, rocket thrust and so on for the Shuttle.  NASA knows how to manage these bad things in space and on the ground, but there is still the concept that is core to space flight:  Acceptable Risk.

We take an Acceptable Risk every day.  Gasoline, in liquid form, is dangerous, but you can toss lit matches in a pool of gasoline with little or no problem, aside from stupidity.  Gasoline vapours are the really bad thing.  Toss a lit match in an old car gas tank and it will fly about 20 feet in the air.  If you’ve ever been to the drycleaner, your clothes have been subjected to PERC, perclorethane, or dry cleaning fluid.  PERC is highly flammable, probably carcinogenic and smells horrid.  We still drive around with 43 liters of flammable Regular Unleaded and look snappy when we go out in our dry cleaned dress up duds.

NASA is the Master at Acceptable Risk.  We don’t know, yet, why the Shuttle came apart, but we will in time.  It could be because of thousands of little things all combining at one point in time and space just stacked the cards the wrong way.  In crash investigation, its called the Golden Nugget.  The trick is to find it, document it and figure out how to never have it happen again. 

Give it time and they’ll find it. It could be very complex, or it could be something as simple as Columbia hit a little piece of space junk a week and a half ago that nobody knew about.  They’ll find it.