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Searching for something gruesome... rocket-related.
February 3, 2014 4:38 PM   Subscribe

A little over 11 years ago, Shuttle Columbia burned up on re-entry. I want more info than the official reports reveal.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) issued a report in 2003 detailing what was known by then about the accident. Several years later, in 2008, NASA issued another report , with the results of multi-year analysis of the debris and remains.

For anyone interested in the details of failure analysis and the piecing together of a plausible timeline from what is essentially dust, these documents are a mine of info. The costs of the original STS-107 mission were probably less than the costs of these reports.

And therein lies the rub.... for me, at least.

Section 3.4 of the second report (Crew Analysis, starting on page 3-71) is redacted in several places, presumably to protect the sensibilities of the surviving families. Certainly, that's a worthy sentiment and I can understand it.

What I can't understand, and would like some input on, is under what administrative authority public access to a publicly funded enterprise is restricted on emotional grounds? We did pay for those shuttles, paid for the missions, paid for ground assets and flight costs, paid for the recovery, the inspection, the analysis and the reports themselves. Where's the content behind redacted paragraphs sprinkled throughout section 3.4? As a taxpayer, I'm curious.

I find, after reading several hundred pages of these documents, that there's some pretty nasty stuff in there already. We are, however, adults (many of us, anyway.) I know people were torn apart, burned, and generally not in good shape. It was a plane crash. I get it. I've also seen a plane crash. I don't need the government screening for MY sensibilities. It's science, not porn, and we sponsored it.

At great expense, it was painstakingly assessed. And yet, it's hidden?

What's the rationale? Specifically, if there are any NASA folks here. Where and who are the custodians of these pages, are they subject to FOIA requests, and if anyone has seen them, are they any worse than stuff seen on Game of Thrones? Are they available somewhere for inspection and review, if not distribution?

The conclusions and resulting action items are listed, and the specific injuries sustained are implied, but the evidence for the conclusions is missing. Why? The people were part of the system, the system failed, the system failed those people. Are we not adult enough to confront the reality, whatever the hell it is?

I can see a veil is required for national security and legit defense needs. Embarrassment of NASA folks who might have to confront some bad decision implications? Not so much. Commercial TV sort of rules out protecting us from gore and horror. That horse is loose.

And IF this info is hidden due to executive order or some other machination, when/who and why? Is there an expiration for the concealment?

Really, any info shed on this at all is greatly appreciated. NASA types... speak up, won't you?
posted by FauxScot to Law & Government (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
There are nine exemptions to the Freedom of Information act. #6 is relevant here - "A personnel, medical, or similar file the release of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy". Medical investigations into cause of death are somewhat unquestionably private matters.

The people were part of the system, the system failed, the system failed those people.

It should be noted that this information is not hidden from NASA investigators that have almost any need to know this information. Further, my experience with NASA employees is that failure analysis is taken to be one of the most important parts of their careers. These sorts of analysis are not treated lightly in order to sustain the US space flight effort.
posted by saeculorum at 4:56 PM on February 3 [12 favorites]

I am not arguing your central premise, because it's valid, but 'Why do you want to know?'

The thing to me, that seems useful to me as a taxpayer, is did the investigation clarify events such that this will not happen again? That's what seems like the point of the examination. So having gotten to that point, and I think they did, if they're in a position to spare family members some added pain -- the children, for instance, of the people on the shuttle -- maybe that is reason enough.

I want to say, I'm not saying, 'Why do you want to know?' is a fair thing for a government to ask its citizens before revealing things. I don't think you should have to answer that question to get information from your government. "Because I feel like it" or "because it's Tuesday" should be enough, but if the answer is clearly an emotional one, "because it would hurt the children of these people to reveal this", I don't know...I guess on that one I'm okay with that.

*I* can confront the reality of what is hidden in those passages, but I think asking family members to do so is quite a thing to ask. It's such a public loss, you know? But so private, also.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:59 PM on February 3

What's the rationale?

That the redacted information is probably intensely personal, to the degree that your interest as a taxpayer does not justify putting a family's most painful information on public display. There's likely nothing in there of any scientific, technical, or political import. Just personal details.

It's not your sensibilities anyone is worried about. It's the sensibilities of the people and families whose information is at issue. Astronauts are federal employees, to be sure, but you don't own them.
posted by valkyryn at 5:16 PM on February 3 [18 favorites]

Section 3.4 of the second report (Crew Analysis, starting on page 3-71) is redacted in several places, presumably to protect the sensibilities of the surviving families.

You're making an assumption here and should find out the actual reason that information was redacted.

I don't need the government screening for MY sensibilities.

No one is trying to correct your sensibilities. Whatever the likely rationale is, it for the family members or respecting the privacy of the decreased crew members. There's no need to take it personally ,

If your'e looking for more information, the book Packing for Mars has some details that may not be in the report.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:28 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]

[Hey, this needs to stay a question and not a debate if it's going to stay up. Thanks. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 5:29 PM on February 3

What's the rationale?

Simply put, having spent a couple years doing government and legal work involving redaction, the rationale is that you and I don't need to know. I understand your curiosity (and will admit to some myself). But there's no reason for you or I to know specific autopsy results for each astronaut. You don't work for NASA. If you knew this information you couldn't do anything with it, even if you consider yourself to be an aerospace expert.

As a taxpayer there is plenty of important info you can do something about, though. If you know that NASA is not being run competently or that the shuttle program has serious issues, you can advocate for change. You can contact your representatives. You can help to make it an election issue. This report gives you plenty of information like that, and it is quite transparent.

But knowing specific autopsy details is not really useful to you or to anyone except for those people who are active NASA researchers and that build and design shuttle systems. I'm sure those who do need to know are well aware of the contents of that report, knowing how NASA works (having a NASA engineer in my extended family, who has told me a lot about her work, and just how transparent it is).

Even still, as you point out, the report already tells you plenty about how these people died (in fact, I am shocked by how much information is public).

Are they any worse than stuff seen on Game of Thrones?

I feel like that's a surprising question to ask, and I've got to call you out on this. You can't be serious? Of course it's worse. These were real human beings who died in the most gruesome way imaginable. It seems like according to the report, they all had body parts severed, and after they died, their bodies were quite literally torn apart, melted, and frozen as they fell. The fact that each helmet was located miles from where suits were located tells you everything you need to know. They weren't fictional characters from some fantasy epic.

At any rate, my feeling is that I'm happy this was redacted as this preserves some humanity. In my opinion, for the layman, it's enough to know that a report was done, that it clearly shows deficiencies in how the shuttle program was being run, and that it shows that those people died horrifically (in part, or entirely due to those deficiencies). The report lists some clear criteria for what needs to change.

The family of Astronaut A doesn't need you to know the specifics of how she died, or the specifics of the condition in which her body was found. It's just entirely unnecessary.

It's more than enough for the public record to make a transparent statement about what the deficiencies were, and what the remedies will be. If NASA is anything, it is transparent, so this report does its job.
posted by Old Man McKay at 5:38 PM on February 3 [44 favorites]

When the Columbia disaster happened, I was close friends with someone who worked for NASA. Obviously he wasn't able to say much, and much of what he said doesn't bear repeating for your answer, but one thing that your question reminded me of is that one of the astronauts was not a U.S. national. It is possible, since you ask, that some of the redactions were as a result his national privacy and security rules, which the U.S. would respect as a matter of foreign policy. You as a U.S. taxpayer were not the only constituency to financially support the mission.

If the crux of your question is that you have some concerns that NASA is covering something up about this accident, please put your mind to rest. NASA employees are basically the federal government's Mefites. They would be the first in line to blow any whistle. I bet many of them fought for as much information to be available as possible, on the chance that a future scientist or engineer would learn from the report. They are not worried, generally, about the defunding of the program; they all have skill sets to work elsewhere for more money and choose NASA for the heart of the place.
posted by juniperesque at 5:50 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]

I've worked for 18 years as a NASA subcontractor. This is my opinion, and not that of NASA or my company.

I was composing a response citing the exemptions to FOIA, but saeculorum has already provided them for you to read. Exemption 6 seems to apply here.

I have not seen the second report you cite, but there are many NASA reports I don't see.

To answer some of your follow up questions: I do not know who the custodian of that document might be, but based on the last page of the document and the fact that it involves human spaceflight I would speculate that document is held at the Johnson Space Center.

Yes that NASA report is subject to a FOIA request, and you may submit such a request here. Based on the response to FOIA request in this document, if you are not satisfied with the response to your FOIA request, you may appeal the determination to the NASA Office of Inspector General.

I would like to thank you personally and thank all the taxpayers who have made my jobs possible. The most important element of any space mission are the hard-working taxpayers that make it possible. I make an effort to try and be helpful to my friends and member of the public in matters regarding the space program when I can because you all have my gratitude.
posted by Rob Rockets at 6:21 PM on February 3 [9 favorites]

Expanding on saeculorum's link: NTSB (though not involved with this particular incident) has examples of the FOIA exemptions as they apply to their own transportation accident reports.
posted by candyland at 6:30 PM on February 3

To kind of expand on the whole "invasion of personal privacy" thing -- I like a good tale of engineering failure, and also read that report. (And on the list of reasons why I will someday go to Special Hell is: I did feel kind of disappointed that there were lots of potentially interesting bits cut out from the end of the story.)

Based on context -- seeing how each piece of evidence that was found was analyzed, with diagrams and such of where parts were found on the ground and what parts of a given system (e.g. the seats for each crew member) were recovered, I would guess that the redacted material contains a similar analysis with regard to the astronauts themselves -- photos of what was recovered, diagrams of which bits were found and which weren't, detailed analysis of the state of what was recovered and how it got to be that way (which could well contain information regarding the individual's prior medical history), et cetera.

My estimate, to be a little gauche, is that the redacted bits are extremely unflattering naked photos of the individuals in question, plus meticulously detailed information about at least some bits of their medical history, most but probably not all of which happened while they were being messily killed. Compared to what seems to be the common expectations that people have regarding their privacy (say, against relatively common reactions to the TSA pornoscanners), releasing that information to the general public would probably rate fairly high on that scale. Granted that so far as we know it is hard to be embarrassed when you're dead, but as a society we usually think that we have some obligation to the deceased themselves as well as to their living friends and family.

I can't find it offhand while looking at the report, but from what I recall from the last time I read the report there was a brief discussion in either the report itself or in some accompanying introduction that this -- protecting the privacy of the people involved -- was the rationale for redacting the information and that the full report was available to their family members and to people who worked in areas where that specific data was relevant.
posted by sparktinker at 7:21 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]

Autopsy records aren't included in HIPAA (but health care records are closed until 50 years after death), and are covered state-by-state. As saeculorum notes, FOIA exempts private records (including records where death has extinguished the individual's expectation of privacy but not that of his or her survivors), so the autopsy report might be exempted from FOIA, but not if the jurisdiction is a state that specifically includes autopsy reports or death records in its FOI law. I don't know what state has jurisdiction - the astronauts officially died in the airspace over Texas, and the autopsies were conducted by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, which has since been dissolved and its functions assumed by the Joint Pathology Center and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (both in Maryland), but the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System might logically be expected to hold the autopsy records. Here's their autopsy record request form.

On a personal note: I read my mother's autopsy report. There are lots of personal details that couldn't possibly have any bearing on a crash investigation, such as gynaecologic observations. I agree that the public doesn't especially need its sensibilities protected (although I think perhaps you should read an autopsy or two before you assume that GoT and fictional gore inure one to the findings - I'll let you do your own googling for those. Rest assured, though, in context, the dry clinical phrase "partially skeletonized" has cost me more sleep than any horror movie ever could.)
posted by gingerest at 7:22 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]

I know several NASA people, even some who know the families. I wish you could see my face right now, so that you'd understand exactly why I would never forward your question to them. Some things are private, not up for public gawking, even if you are a taxpayer. How many gruesome details do you require? Would you ask for the from their families, to their face? Do you need to know about their last words, their unanswered pleas and prayers? Do you need to read about annihilated bodies, the gruesome details about what happens in these situations? How about all the souvenirs people took after it all fell back to Earth, never turned in -- want to know about that, too?

That kind of eager curiosity over the details of another person's death is shameful, and I'm far from alone in that sentiment. That is why it's not available to you.

It's not a big-bad-government protecting you from the things you giggle over at the movies, or all the tough-guy things you've witnessed. It's not to protect you, at all.
posted by Houstonian at 7:38 PM on February 3 [12 favorites]

I imagine the information is redacted out of sheer common decency and compassion towards the survivors.

If I am 'owed' any such information as a taxpayer, then I, for one, wish someone would (lie, if necessary) and please tell me they died unconscious and unaware of what was happening.
posted by Space Kitty at 7:46 PM on February 3

What I can't understand, and would like some input on, is under what administrative authority public access to a publicly funded enterprise is restricted on emotional grounds? We did pay for those shuttles, paid for the missions, paid for ground assets and flight costs, paid for the recovery, the inspection, the analysis and the reports themselves. Where's the content behind redacted paragraphs sprinkled throughout section 3.4? As a taxpayer, I'm curious.

Because we're a community, because we're people not machines. Because we owe other human beings some sort of respect and publicly releasing medical information is not respect. Because the government should be as cognizant and respectful as anyone.

I mean, I'm not American, but in similar-ish circumstances (sea rescues) the personal details of what happened to my uncle are not actually, anything at all like GoT. They are excruciatingly thorough medical exams that detail, specifically, what he went through.

Yes, the taxpayer spent money on the rescue. Yes they want to know how to do it better. None of that is assisted by his medical details. What is assisted is a kind of protective dehumanisation for anyone not personally affected.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:47 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]

Going off on a different tack, here is a collection of photos of Columbia debris that I just came across last night. This exhibit made the rounds of the NASA centers around the country, for NASA staffers to view and contemplate.

As it says on the exhibit:

EVERYONE that touches a mission, on every level, is responsible for what it represents and the lives that are involved.

I also strongly encourage anyone interested in the more serious implications of the Columbia accident to keep up with Wayne Hale's blog. Mr. Hale was the manager of the Space Shuttle Program after Columbia, is a towering figure in the realm of HSF, and written powerfully on these topics for a very, very long time. In 2012-2013, now retired from NASA, he wrote a series of personal blog entries about the accident, on the occasion of the 10 year anniversary. I can't recommend them highly enough. Here's his first entry in the series. Go ahead, just try to stop reading it.

Pardon me, I've got something in my eye.
posted by intermod at 8:10 PM on February 3 [7 favorites]

Whoops, long after the edit window closed I realize I got so hung up in my parentheses I never finished my comment. I agree the public doesn't need its sensibilities protected, but I am grateful my mother wasn't in the public eye, because I'd be pretty ticked off if some ghoul pored over the minute details of my mother's autopsy record in the name of freedom and taxpayer's rights.
posted by gingerest at 9:10 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]

Something else to think about that's been kind of indirectly touched on by others here: that report didn't come from nowhere. It's the result of a lot of work, by a great many people, who found and documented all the evidence, analyzed all of it, compared it to all the drawings and procedures and other documentation about what they knew went up on the Shuttle and what that tells them about what came down, and wrote up conclusions about what they saw. You can see them working out conclusions based on the positions switches were in when they were found, and you can tell if you've got any sort of imagination whatsoever that certain of the conclusions must have been discerned by a similarly detailed analysis of that evidence that they aren't disclosing details of.

That work was done by colleagues of the people who died. They knew the people they were studying personally.

Realistically speaking, if you're going to get a bunch of people to do that sort of report, in that level of detail, regarding people that they knew (and in front of and in some cases as the potential subjects of the next report, may such a thing never happen), it's going to make it a lot harder for them to do this knowing that they're not just writing it for themselves but also for people that... well, are inclined to liken it to an episode of Game of Thrones. Even if they wouldn't do so intentionally -- and they probably would do so intentionally -- there'd certainly be a strong temptation away from exhaustively and dispassionately evaluating each and every detail knowing that they were thereby exposing their deceased colleagues to prurient interest in front of their living family. It certainly would cause me qualms, and if you read between the lines (and, really, you can know pretty much everything you want to know if you can) you can conclude that I'm not exactly the most sensitive person on the planet.

I'd expect that part of the reason why the report that was written does exist for someone to read is because it's not available for everyone to read.
posted by sparktinker at 9:16 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]

I recently finished Mike Mullane's Riding Rockets which was a very engaging book about how he came to be an astronaut and his feelings about NASA and their failures surrounding Challenger. There are details in there about Challenger that I have never heard. But, mostly, there is a lot of detail about how deeply and personally those at NASA during that time were affected by Challenger. It's hard to read this emotional account of the incident from someone very close to those who died on the shuttle and in service to the program and feel like one needs to know more. There is not as much there about Columbia but I think you'd find that book really interesting if you haven't already read it.
posted by amanda at 10:12 PM on February 3

The legislative authority comes from FOIA which you can read here: 5 USC 552. There have been court cases about the privacy exemption, for instance, New York Times v NASA. I'm sure there are more but I'll let you do your own research. Try doing a Google Scholar search for foia privacy exemption
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:31 AM on February 4

It's also important to consider today's media and the internet. If everything put into the report is made available to the public, some of the most lurid images and text would be floating around, forever, used in various inappropriate ways. That's reason enough to redact such information.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:02 AM on February 4

As most have mentioned I think it's mostly that there is information that is very personal to families that isn't relevant to finding out what happened and how to prevent it in the future.

I managed a recovery team in East Texas for several weeks. I was one of the folks that cataloged and carried what we found each day. My 40 person team would walk fingertip to fingertip all day long. I can tell you that most of what my team recovered would fit in the palm of your hand. It was mainly tiles or chunks of tiles, some aluminum, the rare carbon fiber. We found a beautiful metallic cargo latch that someone had said was made from beryllium but I never found out. We had a NASA representative with us at all times. One of the weeks out there I spent with one of the guys who had been waiting for them to land in Florida.

The briefing that we got on day one gave us a lot of information that would point to why some info is redacted, like the fact that the individual flight suits had different thread for each person so that the smallest piece could be identified. Or that the astronauts were allowed to bring a small collection of personal items with them. I remember being in the command center when one of the team leads brought in an armed forces medal that they found in the middle of a field....

There were also some things in the briefing that we weren't told what they were, just that if you found them there was a code to use over the radios. All we saw were grainy pictures of a couple of odd looking black boxes, and they were not flight data recorders. There were also explosives to look out for - hatch bolts that had explosive charges in them for example.
posted by Big_B at 10:10 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]

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