The Thinker

Unsafe at any hyper-speed

Oy, this is a hard entry for this space enthusiast to write. I hate to say it, but I believe that our shuttle fleet is too risky to fly. It is time to retire it permanently. I think a convincing case can be made to retire it immediately.

On April 18, 1980, the space shuttle Columbia lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on the first space shuttle mission. As a manned spaceflight enthusiast, I was proud and excited. Surely, I thought, the shuttle was the catalyst that would open space to the masses. I believed that manned spaceflight was going to become routine. I hoped that there would soon be no more need to send up disposable rockets and spacecraft. Our marvelous shuttle technology would let us get to and from space with minimal cost.

I wrote many of these thoughts in an enthusiastic letter to The Washington Post (which they published). In it, I bubbled about how the shuttle would open up the commercialization of space. I envisioned weekly shuttle flights. I bought into NASA’s notions that shuttle cargo could be delivered for as little as $100 to $200 a pound. I saw this new shuttle technology creating a path for better and sexier reusable space vehicles. I saw myself in the latter half of my life taking a trip into orbit as a tourist, and perhaps spending a couple days at some vast orbiting space station right out of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, I was pretty naïve. But hey, I was only 23!

Fast-forward twenty-three years. On the same day that I turned forty-six (February 1st, 2003) that same shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry, killing its seven astronauts and leaving a trail of wreckage across Texas. When I learned that the shuttle Challenger exploded during takeoff in 1986 I, like most Americans, was profoundly upset. However, when I learned of the Columbia disaster, while sad, I was not surprised. By the mid 1990s, I understood that the space shuttle was getting old and another catastrophe was simply a matter of time.

I think it was clear to NASA too. They knew as the shuttle aged it became more accident prone. That is why NASA funded the X-33 project with the expectation that it would eventually replace the shuttle. Unfortunately, the badly managed X-33 project turned into a fiasco. It wasted $1.3 billion before it was killed. Instead of metering out relatively small bucks over many years for a shuttle replacement, what we needed was a serious debate. Did this country want to stay in the manned spaceflight business? If we were to continue a manned spaceflight program then we needed to come up with a viable and well-funded plan to do it. In addition, the replacement needed to be ready before the laws of entropy tripped up our aging shuttle fleet again.

Okay, I was a wee bit off on my hopes for the space program in 1980. I grew up in the middle of our manned spaceflight program. I was hooked by the adventure of it all. I expected that everyone could share my sense of adventure. Moreover, I was hardly alone. However, it turned out that sending humans into space reliably and cheaply was far harder than NASA had touted. It currently costs about $10,000 to ship one pound of cargo into space today on the space shuttle.

In a way, politics killed the seven Columbia astronauts. Our astronauts died in part because our Congress and presidents found the shuttle program not terribly interesting. Instead of acting as overseers, they acted as mere politicians. The easiest political act was for the Congress to pay for occasional and increasingly expensive shuttle flights and hope for no more catastrophes. Congress bought into the illusion that we had made the shuttle safe enough.

The delayed launch of the shuttle Discovery last Tuesday, rather than bringing some relief, brought home just how precarious the space shuttle is twenty-five years later. After the Columbia disaster, no one faults NASA for being hyper-vigilant. Yet it hardly gives citizens a comfortable feeling when the Discovery launch was delayed due to flaky parts whose root problem could not be discerned. In addition, NASA engineers were clearly surprised when foam from the shuttle’s booster rockets ripped off during launch. While it did not appear to damage the Discovery, it means that future shuttle flights are grounded until a viable fix can be manufactured. Nor was it good news that during the launch two strips of filler material separating tiles on the orbiter’s belly partially pulled out. Fortunately, astronaut Steve Robinson was able to remove them during a spacewalk this week. Meanwhile, a thermal blanket on a less sensitive spot on the orbiter’s skin also pulled out, presumably during launch. NASA engineers say it should not cause a problem during Monday’s reentry. Therefore, the odds look good for a safe shuttle landing. Still like most Americans, I am left with a disquieting feeling that the shuttle is getting too old and too fragile to be used within a reasonable margin of safety.

While it may be technically possible to keep flying the shuttle within a reasonable margin of safety, it is looking increasingly cost prohibitive and dangerous to even bother. The hyper attention to safety is certainly better than another dead shuttle crew. However it suggests that we have reached our limits on what we can do with the aging shuttle technology. It may make more sense to acknowledge that safety margins are now unacceptable, and we should ground the shuttle fleet permanently.

We need a new manned spaceflight vehicle to replace the shuttle. The good news is that Congress and the White House are finally awake now. President Bush’s 2004 space initiative may act as the catalyst to finally retiring the shuttle fleet. Bush’s plan calls for spending $6.6 billion over five years to develop a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). (The total eventual cost is estimated to be $15 billion. Anyone want to bet the real cost will be a lot higher?) Bush’s initiative also calls for a return of men to the moon and an eventual manned journey to Mars. The CEV is merely one part of a NASA Exploration System Architecture Study that is underway. It proposes a variety of new or reengineered rockets and capsules that will enable both a manned space presence by the United States in the future, and provide heavy-duty rockets to lift very heavy payloads into space. (One design under consideration would be as powerful as the Saturn V rockets that powered the Apollo moon flights.)

The proposed timelines for these endeavors strike me as wildly optimistic. President Bush called for test flying an unmanned CEV in three to five years. NASA’s plans discuss retiring a shuttle as early as 2007. In 2011, NASA envisions a manned flight of the CEV. This all sounds wonderful but NASA has yet to select a design for a next generation manned spacecraft vehicle. Instead, there are proposals for vendors to submit designs. NASA plans to pick a design by March 2006 for the CEV.

I wish NASA luck, but this is not your father’s NASA. Where once it was smart and agile, it appears to have become bureaucratic and politically correct. It has always been an institution where contractors do most of the work. What is different from the 1960s is that contractors also make many of the tactical decisions. In addition, those at the top are not necessarily qualified with sufficient engineering skills to make informed judgments. Therefore, while I wish new NASA Administrator Michael Griffin luck with his accelerated schedule, I am also wary. Decisions made in haste can be as bad as those that are over pondered. My sense is that NASA is no longer agile enough to manage properly a program as large and aggressive as the one President Bush is proposing. Taking smaller bites might be a better strategy. I would hope that NASA would worry about putting men back on the moon or sending them to Mars after NASA first demonstrates that it can competently manage and deliver a shuttle replacement.

Because this accelerated schedule is politically driven, do not expect any shuttles to retire in 2007, or even 2010. Instead, expect them to be used more sparingly, and at greater cost and risk. If we are lucky, something well engineered will replace it in the next decade. Let us hope that as long as we are unwise enough to keep using our shuttle fleet that our hyper safety practices are effective. I think we will also need a lot of luck.


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