Undone: The Columbia
January 29, 2017 8:19 AM - Subscribe

In 2003 the space shuttle Columbia was returning from two weeks in orbit. It was a routine mission. So routine that most of America barely paid attention. Until something went terribly wrong. Many of us watched shuttle break apart over Texas on television. All seven of the crew members were lost. Jon Clark's wife, Laurel, was one of them, and her death that day inspired his life's work: helping get more people to space.

Also, we learn that Undone is now done and will not return for a second season.

Report of Columbia Accident Investigation Board
posted by eotvos (6 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Another good episode, shame they're not renewing this podcast.
posted by ellieBOA at 10:16 PM on January 29, 2017

What is going on with Gimlet Media? Why can't they sustain a show over more than one season?
posted by all about eevee at 7:10 AM on January 30, 2017

Here is the report that John Clark worked on. In the podcast, he talks about wanting to describe what the astronauts did and experienced in the disaster; that part starts at 335 of the PDF.

I recommend Chapter 6 of the CAIB (as linked by eotvos). The narrative of the various teams at NASA assessing the effect of the foam incident is quite compelling. But also infuriating - there's one particular staff member who practically plays a Disney villain, in resolutely shutting down efforts that could have averted disaster. I can only imagine how all of these people felt on that February morning. Surely they must have realized quickly what had happened.
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 12:33 PM on January 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yep, Gimlet is screwing up. Undone was the one new show I liked.
posted by ericthegardener at 6:25 PM on January 30, 2017

Wow, the show page still lists it as new. I liked what Undone was doing, even if it wasn't always totally landing for me, and am very sorry to hear it's gone. I'm one show away from listening to nothing from Gimlet, after starting off happy to subscribe to everything they were putting out.

This episode was great, and harassment diving is a nice new addition to my nightmare repertoire.
posted by carbide at 1:16 AM on January 31, 2017

On the cancellation-

I'm sorry to hear that Undone is going away. Of the last two rounds of Gimlet shows, it's the only one I've actively looked forward to hearing, and the only one I've genuinely learned new things from this year.

On the whole, Gimlet seems to have embraced "wacky" as their brand. At least, that's the overwhelming tone of both Science VS. and Surprisingly Awesome. (Also Reply All and the now-lost Mystery Show, which I give a pass to because I like the content so much.) As much as I like the hosts of these programs - at least now that SA isn't hosted by awful fratboys - the tone of all these programs makes me cringe a bit. It's like hanging out with your friend who wears silly Christmas sweaters and feeling embarrassed that the wait staff will overhear as your friend insists on telling you about their silly Christmas sweaters while they're wearing them. "Wacky" and "audio production" are rarely a good mix.

I haven't listened to Heavyweight, 'cause life's too short to spend time with Jonathan Goldstein. Twice removed has been interesting, but it's dangerously close to the wacky ravine. I've enjoyed Crimetown, which, to be fair, isn't even remotely wacky and has far superior audio production. But, it seems to fall into the same trap as Serial and the Reply All "lockup" episode: making a big and incredibly detailed story out of something that isn't actually very interesting except to the participants and the weirdly-obsessive hosts. I was really expecting something interesting and thought-provoking based on the teaser that the anti-mafia mayor and his cop buddies were charged with torturing people in secret. To learn that it's some stupid lovers' tiff was a real anticlimax. Who the hell cares about this self-obsessed jerk and the jerks he hangs out with? (I've got my own corrupt and ethically bankrupt mayor to be annoyed with. And his crimes are at least overly political and have real consequences for my neighbors.)

In short, as time goes on I'm less and less convinced that a for-profit startup is actually capable of supporting interesting audio programs. The Discovery Channel model of content delivery pays the salaries of a lot of talented people, doesn't hurt anyone, and presumably makes a lot of people happy, but the result is mostly embarrassing.

On the actual story -

I'm always a bit conflicted when we talk about risk in the astronaut program. What's an appropriate amount of risk to accept when engaging in space exploration? (Whether another round of low earth orbit visits counts as space exploration is another question entirely.)

I'm not sure what the answer is, but it sure as hell isn't "zero." We accept risks every day because the benefits are worth it, both personally and as governments. Every time I eat at a sketchy taco stand, get into a cab, or vote for an imperfect senator, I'm taking a non-zero risk that my life will end as a direct result. And it's usually worth it, because tacos are great and getting to the theater on time is useful. (I'll get back to you on the senator thing in a few years.) Risk comparable to a WWII bomber crewman strikes me as pretty reasonable in exchange for being an astronaut in space. It's a far more rewarding job, and there are no doubt millions of people who would be willing to take the risk to enjoy it.

To take an extreme and personal example, if you asked me, "would you take a one way trip to mars," I'd ask a lot of questions, but there's probably a better than 50% chance the answer would be yes. (Assuming a credible plan and appropriate resources.) If you then said, "there's a 15% chance you'll die on the way there," it wouldn't change my answer significantly. I'm certainly not an astronaut, but given my own professional history I don't think it's crazy to project my personal risk analysis onto that of actual astronauts.

The question is, how much are we willing to pay to make going into space safe? That's a really hard question to answer. But it's not a question we should be afraid to ask. If the answer is "any cost" and "failure is not an option" then we'll never actually push the boundaries of what's possible. We'll use incredibly safe space vehicles to host children's programming from low earth orbit forever, at enormous cost. If the answer is at least, "we don't need to be safer than professional crab fishing or deep-sea oil-industry diving," then there's the potential to do something interesting.

Which isn't to say that making spaceflight safer isn't a great idea and well worth doing. But, living in a world where there are lots of astronauts and a few of them die isn't obviously worse than a world where nobody goes into space and we're all safe as a result. There's a lot to be said for carefully considered risk.
posted by eotvos at 8:51 PM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

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