The Columbia Accident Investigation Board is on the verge of declaring the probable cause of the February 1 shuttle disaster to be the chunk of foam that struck the leading edge of the left wing during the first moments of liftoff. What it will not say is that the tragedy is the latest fateful application of “Lusser’s Law.”
The irony is that the late Dr. Robert Lusser, regarded as the “father of reliability,” had always harbored a suspicion that the propulsion systems for which he was chiefly responsible could not be made reliable enough. He was chief of the reliability section at Redstone Arsenal, Wernher von Braun’s development center in Huntsville, Alabama, in the mid-1950’s. In his native Germany, Lusser had an early-established reputation for genius. He developed the Messerschmitt ME-109, once the world’s fastest aircraft and a mainstay fighter of the German Luftwaffe. Lusser engineered the Heinkel HE-219. Cantankerous and confrontational, he fought with both Willy Messerschmitt and Heinkel and at one time or other quit both.
Most famously, or infamously, Lusser engineered the first cruise missile, the ram-jet powered V-1, the “buzz-bomb.” Thousands were launched against Britain after the Royal Air Force had defeated the German manned bombers. And thousands of Britons died.
A few weeks before the official end of World War II in Europe, on March 13, 1945, one plane left a flight of Allied bombers flying high over Upper Bavaria, peeled off and sped for a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. It was the sanctuary to which Lusser had sent his wife and four children. A stick of seven bombs was dropped, one hitting the house, killing Mrs. Hildegarde Lusser. French prisoners employed on the farm said the plane bore British markings, odd for the fact that the others in the formation appeared to be American on the traditionally American daylight raids. The surviving Lussers have always wondered. But Robert Lusser was away at the V-1 works at the time.
Unlike von Braun, who arrived in the West at war’s end, Robert Lusser didn’t get to the United States until 1948, first with the U.S. Navy at Point Mugu, then the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Labs, and then at Redstone with von Braun in 1953. Lusser would apply his law of probability to the rockets being developed with which von Braun hoped to send men to the moon. But Lusser, whose formula, RS=R1xR2x…Rn, presaged systems theory thinking, never caught the von Braun fever for manned space exploration.
In an interview with this reporter in the mid-Fifties, Lusser declared that “man can never go to the moon, let alone to the Mars.” He explained in layman’s terms there was simply too much to go wrong, the probability odds with which he had wrestled a lifetime were simply too great for the risk. And this from a man charged with trying to make it happen! Impolitic? Yes, and especially so at a time when a Senate Majority Leader named Lyndon Johnson was leading the budget battle for a nascent NASA.
Lusser’s daughter, Traute Grether, recalls her father was “completely convinced re-entry would not work.” But an America alarmed by Soviet space achievements was not to be deterred by mathematical formulae. (It became legendary among U.S. engineers and program managers at the Cape that if they waited for “the Germans” in Huntsville to declare their rocket ready they would never leave the ground.)
In January of 1959 Lusser left Huntsville, returned to Germany and joined the combined Heinkel-Messerschmitt-Boelkow concern. Later, he would make European headlines by accurately predicting the failures of the German-bought F-104 Lockheed Starfighters because he observed they were being converted into all-purpose craft which could not meet those requirements. Twenty of the planes crashed, killing a dozen pilots. Lusser’s Law was not to be denied.
Lusser spent his last days and a lot of his personal fortune trying to market a ski binding he had designed to release at just the right time of stress. He was 69 when he died in January of 1969, seven months before men did what he thought to be reliably forbidden; they landed on the moon, and came back.
A review suggests that not enough attention has been paid Lusser’s Law. The Soviets lost a single space pilot and then a three-man crew on failed re-entries. The United States lost three astronauts in a launch-pad fire when pure oxygen was used in the early Apollo craft, necessitating a switch to an oxygen-nitrogen mix and elimination of flammable materials in the craft. Of five Space Shuttles built, two have been lost, the Challenger on launch and most recently the Columbia on re-entry, with total fatalities of the crews.
As in the past investigations, the Columbia Accident Board will assign a probable cause and in hindsight it will all look so preventable. There will ensue a debate over funding for safety. Heads have already rolled. More may.
Beneath it all, a constant, a mathematical rule of reliability intuited by a German genius whose name is unknown to most Americans. Unless they want to know the odds and then consult “Lusser’s Law.”
Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.