Unethical Quote of the Week: Former NASA Official Jon Harpold

“Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done until the air ran out?”

—–Space Shuttle Columbia mission operations chief Jon Harpold in 2003, talking about the Shuttle crew then in flight, as quoted by former NASA flight director Wayne Hale on his blog this week. Harpold was musing on a hypothetical situation (he thought) where NASA had determined that the Shuttle couldn’t safely return to Earth.

Columbia crew

Days before Columbia disintegrated on re-entry due to a damaged heat shield, NASA officials met to determine whether Columbia was safe to land despite some damage after takeoff. They decided, wrongly, as it turned out, that the Shuttle was safe. In the course of the meeting, Jon Harpold raised the hypothetical dilemma of a doomed Shuttle and an unaware crew.

Hale tells the story to make the point that NASA’s culture at the time was organizationally and ethically flawed. I agree.

Harpold’s position is kind but monstrous. It presumes to withhold the truth from those most effected by it, on the theory that it is better to die suddenly and unexpectedly than to have the opportunity to fight and strive to the end to solve what might be an impossible problem. Nobody should feel that he has the right to make that decision, to give up on life itself, for another who still has the capacity to think and act. This is disrespect for the values of personal liberty and autonomy, both much in the public mind today.

We each must have the right to make our own decisions about our fates, and must always have the information we need to make those decisions as wisely as we can. Those who fear the truth have insufficient reverence for it. Even the worst information may contain the seeds of victory.

I’m not going gentle into that good night, and damn anyone who tries to trick me into doing so out of misplaced kindness.


Facts: Kansas City Star

Graphic: KCNTV

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

13 thoughts on “Unethical Quote of the Week: Former NASA Official Jon Harpold

  1. It makes more sense when you realize that the engineers in charge of evaluating the damage found that there was likely a hole large enough to destroy the shuttle. When said engineers contacted their predecessors (who had been fired to make way for cheaper hires with less experience), they found that THOSE engineers were even more worried than they were. When they asked for a spacewalk to evaluate the damage, they were refused. When they devised a plan to dock the shuttle at the ISS, it was shot down because it might be embarrassing. When they asked for satellite images, it was refused because the NASA higher ups hadn’t submitted to their FBI background checks and didn’t have the security clearance they were supposed to.

    The question makes more sense when you realize that it wasn’t a hopeless situation. The NASA managers were worried that they would look silly if they docked Columbia at the ISS, had to get people off the ISS with a Soyuz, and send up another shuttle mission to get Columbia home if there was nothing really wrong. If the shuttle crew had been told the truth, they likely would not have wanted to try a reentry and would have demanded that something else be tried.

    The crew of Columbia didn’t die from an accident. They died because of the incompetence of the government bureaucrats. They died because the people who got to make the decisions had no business making them. They died because some officials were afraid of looking weak. After the decisions resulted in the loss of Columbia and her crew, the head of the mission, the woman who made the call to bring Columbia home, was promoted.

    • From my reading, it wasn’t quite so simplistic. Apparently docking with the ISS was not an option. Because of the different orbital inclinations of the two craft the shuttle could not have reached the ISS, nor could they have sent Soyuz spaceships to pick up the folks off the shuttle and return them to the ISS.

      However, had NASA known early enough of the severity of the damage, there was another shuttle on the launch pad — it was possible that it could have been expedited enough to launch before Columbia ran out of air. Failing that option, had they verified the damage they could have attempted to jury rig some repairs that might’ve allowed Columbia to re-enter.

      I agree that management and internal culture flaws within NASA played key roles in how this disaster played out. It is also possible that Columbia was doomed as soon as it was hit during launch. But again look at Apollo 13. NASA and its astronauts were capable of some amazing feats — but not when they refused to admit there was a problem.

  2. “Harpold’s position is kind but monstrous.”

    Monstrous, yes. Monstrous, period. But Jack, please correct me if you must: Kind??? Kind to WHO? Kind OF who?

    Is perhaps that same “kindness” driving the minds of the top powers of U.S. governance these days, when considering the impending and near certain disastrous economic fates of over 300 million Americans?

    • If the only options in Harpold’s mind are slow suffocation knowing death is imminent and quick painless and unknown. Yes the kind option is quick painless unknown.

      This was a false dichotomy in Harpold’s mind which exclude the other options such as say — try to fix the damage. This is why it is also monstrous.

      • With the possible exception of a military commander in some circumstances, I just cannot see how a person, who knows another person’s or group’s almost certain (or highly likely) impending death while keeping the ill-fated uninformed, is acting kindly.

        • No, they would be acting monstrously…

          But stipulate the False Dichotomy to be true:
          Slow painful death vs quick unknown death? All things being equal, which is kinder?

          The False Dichotomy being accepted in the Leader’s mind is proof of his monstrosity and definite lack of leadership ability.

          Kind, but monstrous.

          • Hmmm…now there’s a line I can use in the post I’m writing now, comparing the uproar over the so-called “torture memos” from John Yoo and others to the latest memo’s finding justification for assassination by drone.

            “Slow painful death vs quick unknown death? All things being equal, which is kinder?”

            Or more unconstitutional?

            • If kindness isn’t the measuring stick, but constitutionally is, ad all things being equal, we still can’t determine which is less constitutional.

              Death for a capital crime? Quick is better (no cruel and unusual punishment), but if unknown, that would imply no trial… So not constitutional.

              Death without a conviction? No brainer that neither fit the bill.

              Death as a consequence of making war against the United States? Well, just depends on how ‘unlucky’ a combatant gets….a bullet to the brain or trapped a cave that just got JDAM’d?
              But constitutionality would seem to depend on the constitutionality of the war itself.

  3. Rarely are there only two possible solutions to a problem. Refusing to search for and consider additional possibilities is both selfish and monstrous. Unfortunately, that (either/or) two-dimensional thinking is what seems to permeate most public discussions today. Through limiting the “apparent” choices to one of two extreme positions, controlling parties in the discussions hope to force public opinion to their point-of-view and thus gain or retain power for their “side”. This strategy may work well for some well-heeled special interests but rarely to the benefit of the general population and thus works particularly poorly in matters of ethical public governance.

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