Columbia Accident Investigator Speaks Out Against NASA Commercial Crew Plan

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WASHINGTON — Roger Tetrault, a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) formed in the wake of the February 2003 space shuttle disaster, has joined the chorus of critics of NASA’s plan to cancel the Moon-bound Constellation program and rely on commercially oriented firms like Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to fly astronauts to the international space station.

“America’s path is now threatened by the decisions being proposed in the NASA budget,” Tetrault wrote in a May 27 letter to U.S. Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas), a critic of President Barack Obama’s proposed human spaceflight overhaul. “We are cancelling a program built around the findings and lessons learned from Columbia. There is no clear mission or direction given to NASA, and the use of proven-technologies is being shunned. Further, the choice to commercialize our launch capability provides insufficient safety for the brave men and women that will be asked to ride these rockets. Surely, they deserve the best we can provide.”

Tetrault’s letter was forwarded by Olson to every member of the U.S. House of Representatives just days after SpaceX’s successful June 4 debut of Falcon 9, the two-stage rocket the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company hopes to use to launch NASA cargo and crew to the space station.

Tetrault, the former chairman of McDermott International, an engineering and construction firm that builds, among other things, nuclear facilities, did not mention SpaceX by name in his letter. But he said “the new entrepreneurial space transportation companies” should first demonstrate they can be counted on to deliver cargo before they are trusted with NASA’s human spaceflight mission.

“Only after they have proven that they are mature and safe enough, should they be allowed to step up to the much harder task of carrying humans,” Tetrault wrote.


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Fellow CAIB member John Logsdon, now professor emeritus at the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute here, said Tetrault is repeating the mantra of many commercial crew opponents by singling out “new entrepreneurial” firms and ignoring the fact that large, well-established companies including Boeing and United Launch Alliance are poised to compete for the $6 billion NASA intends to spend over the next five years on the commercial crew initiative.

Logsdon also said it is premature for Tetrault to conclude that commercial providers will skimp on safety.

“That’s an ideological judgment, not a technical statement,” Logsdon told Space News. “You can’t make such a judgment in advance of something being done.”