Two years after the loss of space shuttle Columbia this nation’s human space program is again on a countdown to disaster. Former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe left the human space program in shambles. His failures are many, but failing to thoroughly investigate the shuttle crew escape issue will certainly head the list. In fact NASA’s planned return of the space shuttle to routine flight operations without the crew escape pod system is an act of gross negligence.
Administrator O’Keefe has testified at the Columbia congressional hearing that it was his understanding that the shuttle escape system was, “examined very thoroughly.” This had not been the case. Administrator O’Keefe also “guaranteed” that “we will go back and look again … on what all the alternatives are.”
This has not been the case either. The failure to investigate this critical life-saving safety concept was not an oversight but instead was rejected by the prejudiced conjecture that humans cannot be safely transported on an automated space shuttle.
Conjecture instead of engineering analyses has become a lethal trademark of NASA’s human space flight program.
The newly appointed NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel was requested to investigate the automated space shuttle crew escape pods issue. The request was ignored. The previous safety panel resigned, and Chairwoman Shirley McCarthy told the press that NASA’s failure to address their concerns for shuttle crew escape as a reason.
The newly created NASA Engineering and Safety Center was also asked to investigate. They also ignored the request. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board said crew escape was an internal NASA problem and not an issue for the board’s consideration.
The independent assessment of the Shuttle Return to Flight Task Group is marred by a NASA management’s dictate prohibiting investigation of the crew escape issue. In December 2003, the NASA Office of Inspector General was requested to investigate if NASA’s human space flight management has been negligent in their responsibilities to provide safe and cost-efficient space shuttle operations. Their investigation has been timid at best. Where is the due diligence for the safety of the space shuttle crews? The conduct of these responsible authorities is a shameful disgrace.
NASA’s plan to decommission the shuttle and replace it with the still undefined Crew Exploration Vehicle, which will use expendable launch vehicles, is yet another blunder.
Launching a comparable shuttle payload with these expendable vehicles will exceed the current shuttle launch cost by at least 10 percent. Earth orbit and l unar/Mars human space transportation will never be affordable with expendable launch vehicles — and there goes the president’s space vision for this country.
Regrettably there are two space shuttle missions that must be flown before a crew escape pod system could be installed. Last fall the international space station’s attitude control gyros came within one failure of letting the station tumble into the E arth’s atmosphere.
The replacement gyros can only be delivered by the space shuttle. The Hubble Space Telescope is a key element in the planetary defense of impacts from comets and asteroids. In July Hubble will support space mission Deep Impact by analyzing the debris from a probe’s collision with comet Tempel 1. The chances of a comet or asteroid hitting Earth are unknown. It is known that if one ever does, all mankind could perish.
The shuttle mission to repair Hubble should be mandatory. In February 2003, the world watched in horror as the Columbia crew perished in a survivable accident.
A presidential executive order should be issued for a moratorium that limits space shuttle flights without crew escape pods to only those required for the utmost national interest. Flight crews must not exceed four members and those astronauts with young children should be excluded.
A presidential moratorium would be the instrument of tough love needed at NASA. This moratorium would be the first step in getting mankind back to the Moon and on to Mars and beyond. The automated space shuttle with escape pods can be the foundation for a safe and cost-effective space transportation system. However this moratorium will never be issued until President George W. Bush is finally made to realize that NASA’s human space program is still a disaster waiting to happen.
Don A. Nelson was a mission planner and advanced programs engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and is the author of “NASA New Millennium Problems and Solutions.” His W eb site is www.nasaproblems.com.