Shuttle Tragedy

Shuttle Tragedy
Simulated launch, real deathNASA officials had one word for the simulated launch of the space
shuttle at Cape Canaveral last week: “Super!” Then disaster struck. For
reasons yet to be explained, five Rockwell International technicians
removed an access panel and entered a rear section of the orbiter above
the engine. A few minutes later, they began keeling over from lack of
oxygen. One technician, John Bjornstad, 50, died in a helicopter en
route to a hospital, and another, Forrest Cole, was in critical
condition.The reason for the mishap may not be known until NASA and Rockwell
officials complete their separate investigations. Yet some of the
circumstances are already known. Apparently, safety supervisors erred
in clearing the technicians to go into the craft. Before a launch
rehearsal, it is standard procedure to use nonflammable nitrogen to
flush oxygen-laden air out of the engine compartment, where even the
slightest friction or electrical spark can touch off a deadly fire.
Afterward, the technicians, all of whom had considerable experience
working with the shuttle, went into the nitrogen-saturated compartment
without their air packs, the portable breathing systems used in
hazardous atmospheres. Since nitrogen can neither be seen nor smelled,
the five technicians were overcome before they were aware of the
danger.A sixth technician discovered the mishap and called a security guard,
who donned a breathing apparatus that enabled him to drag the five from
the compartment. An ambulance speeding to pad 39-A reportedly was
delayed by security men.Despite the accident, the space shuttle is still scheduled for launch
next month, pending a successful test of its fuel tank. The shuttle has
been plagued by technical troubles during its development over the past
decade and is two years behind schedule. Last week's tragedy was the
first loss of life at the launch site of a manned space flight since
three astronauts died in a capsule fire in the Apollo I spacecraft in
1967. ∎