Shuttle Retirement and Safety Considerations

In the Jan. 5 issue, you listed my former job at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) as a manager of Science and Applications Experiments for the Space Station [“When to Retire the Shuttle? – Safety Considerations,” Commentary, page 19]. Since my article was related to shuttle, it should be noted that I was a manager of Systems Engineering for the Space Shuttle Program at JSC from development through the first eight shuttle flights, before I moved to a job in the Space Station Program.

The exciting Moon-bound Constellation program represents a major change in NASA’s main goal that, if fully implemented, will be the biggest step forward in the U.S. manned space program since the end of Apollo in the 1970s when we decided to build a permanent space station and a shuttle.

Sometimes, in our zeal to get going, we are overly optimistic about technical performance and costs in our proposed programs. In Constellation, discovery of technical performance shortcomings in proposed configurations have caused unanticipated changes and costs in major elements of the program – extra segments in the solid-rocket booster, excessive vibration during launch, change from land landing to plopping down in the ocean, and weight growth in the Orion spacecraft.

There comes a time when we must face up to the truth. It bears repeating (with emphasis) that the Constellation program must be implemented with adequate funding and done safely. The impact of another disastrous accident, with several years of full spending but no manned flights, would be an enormous setback. Even without an accident, several years without U.S. manned flights would also be a setback for the inspiration we are expecting to provide for America. Buying flights from Russia was not a good option to begin with, and is now a worse choice. Russia, at best, would be an undependable partner. The Russian Soyuz is not without risk to human life either.

O. Glenn Smith, PhD

Former manager of Systems Engineering for the Space Shuttle