Essays and Stuff

Gymnastics and rocket science

Why Simone Biles was right to call NO GO

It’s rocket science.

Among the most important controls in a spacecraft, one the pilot is constantly aware of even though they hope never to have to use it, is the abort switch. And it’s not just the pilot: it’s a vital part of any Mission Control or launch engineer’s job to say NO GO if they don’t like what they are seeing.

One of the most famous almost-aborts in US spaceflight came when lightning struck the Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 12 spacecraft and crew into orbit. The problem was not just that the lightning strike had taken major systems offline but that Mission Control was now literally flying blind — with no telemetry signals coming from the command module, they couldn’t tell what was happening in the spacecraft. They were getting close to the point where they had no choice but to abort the mission. EECOM engineer John Aaron’s famous call “SCE to AUX” saved the day not by magically fixing everything but by using a backup telemetry system to restore Mission Control’s ability to assess the damage and proceed with the flight.

That information is especially vital when it comes to navigation. Spaceflight is all about orbits — it’s not as simple or intuitive as pointing the rocket toward the place you want to go and firing your engines. Getting the orbit right requires knowing precisely where you are, precisely what direction and how fast you’re going, precisely what your attitude is — yaw, pitch, roll — and at what precise strength and duration your engines fire. If your instruments aren’t able to give you that information with enough precision… you’ve got problems, and you may well need to call NO GO.

Astronauts and engineers are trained in risk assessment and risk mitigation. They know the job is dangerous, but they don’t just do the job despite the risks, they work to reduce those risks — and to know when the risks are too much. They have to know when to say GO… and when to say NO GO. Either call may well require courage. You may be haunted by what might have been after a crucial abort, but you’ll probably have another chance.

In the winter of NASA’s discontent, the agency was a laughingstock — its literal failure to launch made it the butt of countless late-night jokes. A newspaper cartoon converted to animation in a precursor of today’s YouTube culture showed a tow-truck driver offering to give the space shuttle a jump-start. And for chrissakes, the president is giving the State of the Union address tonight — it’d be nice to give him a victory instead of another damn scrub.

In the face of that, on that morning of January 28, 1986, another NO GO seemed cowardly. In hindsight, of course, we know it would have been brave to have actually listened to the engineers saying it was too cold to launch, that the risk was too great that the O-rings where the segments of Challenger’s solid rocket boosters joined together would fail to hold the hot exhaust gases in. And so, instead of possibly speaking to the astronauts from the floor of the House, Ronald Reagan spoke of them from the Oval Office, in eulogy.

Just as I trust the judgment of a NASA (or SpaceX, or Blue Origin) engineer who calls an abort, I trust Simone Biles’ judgment. Executing a gymnastics move — especially at the stratospheric level where Biles works — requires knowing precisely where your body is, precisely how far away the bar or the horse or the floor is, precisely how far along you are in the flip. Get it wrong, and you may well be hitting the floor not with your feet but with your head.

If your mind and your body start giving you ratty data, if you can no longer trust what your navigation system is telling you… then NO GO is the right call. And yes, it means we’re not talking about the latest gold medal Biles or the US gymnastics team won. It also means we’re not talking about the injury that ended Biles’ career… or even her life.

And, y’know? I’m good with that.

This is the bio am I doing this right? Probably not.

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