http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la- ... 4044.story
October 15, 2004 The Nation: Genesis Crash Blamed on Installation Error - NASA says the space capsule, built by Lockheed Martin, went down in the Utah desert because a crucial switch was put on backward. . . . . If the system had operated as it was supposed to, the first chute, known as a drogue, would have slowed the capsule until being ejected and replaced by a second, heavier chute designed to slow the capsule to about 10 mph. Helicopters were waiting with special hooks to pluck the capsule out of the sky.
"The board is working to confirm this PROXIMATE cause to determine why this error happened, why it was not caught by the test program and an extensive system of in-process and after-the-fact reviews of the Genesis system," Ryschkewitsch said.
I have never before encountered the word ‘proximate’ and have no feel for its usage or why this word would here be chosen as opposed to some other (e.g. possibly ‘approximate’). The statement was made by NASA and I would assume (perhaps wrongly so) that NASA carefully chose to use this particular (and uncommon) word as opposed to some other one to convey a nuance of meaning. However, the possibility does exist that ‘proximate cause’ has evolved as a piece of NASA jargon that the rest of the world is not privy to, or perhaps it actually is a technical or legal term that does have some general currency.
Some of the dictionary definitions I found were (and sorry Wiz for any linguistic chauvinism, but I don’t have an Australian dictionary handy to level the playing field for you):
PROXIMATE: 1) close, very near or next or nearest as in space, time, or order (immediately before or after in order, place, occurrence, etc.). See synonyms at ‘close.’ 2). approximate; fairly accurate. 3) forthcoming; imminent. 4) Coming next (before or after) in a chain of causation, agency, reasoning, or other relation; immediate: opposed to ‘remote’ or ‘ultimate’: ‘proximate principle,’ ‘constituent,’ or ‘element ‘(Chemistry), one of those compounds of which a more complex body is directly made up, and which are therefore first arrived at in the process of analysis: so ‘proximate analysis.’
I have tried to pair all the above definitions with ‘cause’ and none of them seem to really jell.
‘Approximate cause’ (or possibly ‘fairly accurate cause’), which was my first guess, makes no sense since the cause they are discussing is not approximate but would quite precisely be – “the gravity switch was installed backwards.” I’ve worked on space projects and at NASA Ames Research center for many years and in my experience, when there is a failure, no one is looking for ‘approximate’ causes this late in an investigation.
‘Near, close, next to, etc. cause’ doesn’t seem to make any sense either. NASA wants nothing less then a ‘precise cause,’ THE cause.’ ‘Forthcoming, imminent’ are possible, but ‘imminent cause’ and ‘forthcoming cause’ just doesn’t sound right, although ‘probable cause’ might have worked.
A possibility that that could work is the idea of an ‘immediate cause’ as opposed to a ‘remote’ or ‘ultimate’ ‘cause.’ I don’t like this idea very much, but they might be saying that the backwards switch was the immediate cause, but that the ‘remote/ultimate’ cause was shoddy inspection practices, poor training of technicians, failure to use a switch designed in such a way that it could not be installed backwards. But these types of ‘causes’ are not usually given when an investigation is under way to discover why a system failed or even later on when the question is asked “what caused the disaster? (e.g. the Challenger failed because of that infamous O-ring, the Columbia tragedy was a result of a piece of foam insulation punching a hole in the heat-shielding tile. But, I suppose that very long term and ‘ultimately,’ one could say that these disasters were caused by systemic failures in how NASA generally went about its business).
Would appreciate any enlightenment on what NASA might have been trying to get at with their use of this word (phrase) and why they chose this particular one and perhaps not something more familiar (at least to me) that might have more simply and clearly (to this simpleton) conveyed their intended meaning.
Ken G – October 15, 2004