Commentary | NASA Forgets Key Lesson from Columbia Accident

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It is imperative that NASA successfully rebuild America’s ability to launch astronauts into space and catch up with the Russians and Chinese who routinely launch astronauts to low Earth orbit. This U.S. administration canceled the program making progress toward replacing the space shuttle before ending space shuttle flights. The United States is now entirely dependent upon the Russians for U.S. crew access to the international space station.

NASA’s proposed solution is the Commercial Crew Program, “stimulating” American companies to develop new boosters and spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the space station. However, our nation’s return to spaceflight could be irreparably threatened by fatally flawed provisions in the new solicitation for the final phase of Commercial Crew development.

NASA is ignoring the main lesson learned in 50 years of spaceflight and from the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia accidents: Astronaut safety must be the single highest priority in human spaceflight.

For reasons that are hard to understand, NASA has chosen in the Commercial Crew Program to blatantly ignore a top recommendation of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which investigated the causes of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s 2003 breakup during re-entry that resulted in seven astronaut deaths. The board’s report devoted a large section to stressing that the next human spacecraft should have major emphasis on the safety of astronauts.

NASA’s new contract solicitation establishes three evaluation criteria, in order of importance: Price, Safety/Mission Suitability, and Past Performance. “Mission Suitability,” which includes safety, is the term used for the technical value of each company’s proposal. With these priorities, safety is less than 25 percent of the overall evaluation of the contractor and his proposed design. For the first time, “Price” trumps “Safety/Mission Suitability.” This inverted prioritization is unprecedented for NASA human spaceflight. It is unacceptable.

Safety/Mission Suitability has always been and always should be of the highest priority in these and all competitions. Safety was a prime consideration in the NASA-subsidized Commercial Cargo development, which resulted in a services contract for delivery of supplies to the space station. NASA is saying the safety of toothpaste, food, underwear and other supplies is more important than human lives.

While reducing costs is important to sustaining space exploration, the lessons of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia teach that savings must not be achieved at the expense of safety.

Another troubling shortcoming in this solicitation is that NASA has waived the certified cost or pricing data that is normally required by Federal Acquisition Regulations in NASA contracts and also by Department of Defense contracts. Why? The result is that neither NASA nor Congress can have accountability or oversight of billions of taxpayer dollars to be spent in this program.

Without certified cost accounting and pricing, there is no real gauge to validate the proposed price in this proposal process. The NASA contract will put the risk on contractors to complete this contract in the event that costs exceed the proposed fixed price. If costs exceed what contractors can or are willing to cover, this program and the space station itself will be put in jeopardy.

The real danger is that once NASA and the companies realize success cannot be achieved for what was originally bid in the proposal, either safety will be compromised or NASA will have to find the additional money to fix the problem.

NASA will not even have the ability to perform the necessary oversight to foresee these cost issues coming. NASA will presumably bail out the companies under these circumstances, thereby encouraging cheap and unsafe proposals.

When looking at the entire history of the space program, modifications to existing systems are inevitable, necessary and expensive. The tendency of human spaceflight costs to escalate beyond initial estimates will make cheap and unsafe bids a huge problem.

If NASA does not act quickly to change course and reinstate the traditional emphasis on safety, it is all too likely that rather than the supposed revolutionizing of human spaceflight, the Commercial Crew Program will be added to the long list of failed NASA programs. Or worse, we will witness a tragedy due to a cheap proposed price. Not only would a preventable accident be unfathomable, but it would also be a national setback in human spaceflight and counterproductive to the original cause of saving money (at the expense of safety).

We must ask ourselves, how is it possible that this is even being allowed to happen?

Throughout the history of the space program, it has been an assigned responsibility for the astronauts to be a “line of defense” to assure safety and good spacecraft designs. Furthermore, it is a personal priority for each of us to look out for our fellow space explorers. The Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia accidents, with the loss of close friends, are tragic reminders of our priorities and responsibilities. Along with several of my colleagues who have also experienced human spaceflight, including Gene Cernan (Gemini 9A, Apollo 10 and 17), Jim Lovell (Gemini 7 and 12, Apollo 8 and 13), Dave Scott (Gemini 8, Apollo 9 and 15), Dick Gordon (Gemini 11, Apollo 12), Alan Bean (Apollo 12, Skylab 3), Walt Cunningham (Apollo 7), Al Worden (Apollo 15), Jack Lousma (Skylab 3, STS-3), Scott Horowitz (STS-75, 82, 101 and 105) and John Creighton (STS-51G, 36 and 48), we are compelled now to speak out on this dangerous inversion of priorities — cost over safety — while it can still be corrected.

 

Vance Brand (Apollo-Soyuz, STS-5, 35 and 41-B) is a former NASA astronaut.