July 31, 2005

Finding the Right Noun

(CNN) -- NASA engineers have determined that Discovery can safely return to Earth and that the space shuttle's thermal tiles don't pose a safety hazard, deputy shuttle manager Wayne Hale said Saturday night.

Thus begins a story on today’s CNN Web site. Similar copy was read on the air, but what was said was not quite what was intended.

The shuttle's thermal tiles, rather than posing a safety hazard, are intended to protect the shuttle. When they operate properly, they do just that, allowing the craft to survive the enormous heat of re-entry into the atmosphere. The concern NASA had was not that the tiles might be a threat, but that their condition could be. Were they or were they not damaged in the ascent to orbit?

Even if Hale was imprecise in his statement—notice that he is not quoted directly—CNN should have cleaned up its lead with something like:
NASA engineers have determined that Discovery can safely return to Earth and that the condition of the space shuttle’s thermal tiles don't pose a safety hazard, deputy shuttle manager Wayne Hale said Saturday night.

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