Columbia: accident waiting to happen - again

March 1, 2003
The official name that NASA has given to its space shuttle program is the Space Transportation System. It is not.
John Rhea
The NASA budget wouldn't run the Pentagon for two weeks, and is half of what we spend on food stamps.
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WASHINGTON — The official name that NASA has given to its space shuttle program is the Space Transportation System. It is not.

As the tragic accident that took the lives of the seven astronauts on board the shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1 has once again demonstrated, this is not a proven system.

We went through this national agony before on Jan 28, 1986, when seven other astronauts perished in the shuttle Challenger.

To use an aviation analogy, the barnstorming days are over and it's time to put together an operational system that will be both economically viable and sufficiently safe to attract a growing user base.

I think this analogy is appropriate. As we prepare to celebrate the centennial of the Wright brothers' first flight this coming Dec. 17, it is useful to recall that at first there were very few fatal accidents. Then there was a sudden rash of them, including the crash that killed Wilbur Wright in 1912. The aviation industry took the necessary corrective actions, and today air travel is commonplace.

The space shuttle has always suffered from comparison to the ultra-successful Apollo program, which landed the first Americans on the moon on July 20, 1969.

That was one of the few federal government programs that were completed on time, on budget, and without any fatalities in actual flight operations. President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation's experts to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade of the 1960s, which they did. The total costs of the Apollo program were $23 billion, according to the final report on the program, although the estimates at the time of his 1961 address to Congress ranged from $20 billion to $40 billion. Although no one was ever killed on an Apollo flight, astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a spacecraft fire during a ground test on Jan. 27, 1967.

Compromise from the start

The shuttle's problems, in fact, date from the Apollo period. When President Richard M. Nixon announced the shuttle program in 1972 — the year of the last Apollo lunar landing — it was a compromise from the beginning.

NASA top managers knew they needed a follow-on program to Apollo to sustain Apollo's momentum even before the first moon landing, and their top choices were an inhabited base on the moon, a space station, and manned missions to Mars. The shuttle was their consolation prize.

I interviewed Wernher von Braun, the director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., on this issue several times during the 1960s. An eminent rocket and space expert, von Braun was instrumental in developing the German V-2 rocket in the 1940s, the U.S. Jupiter rocket in the 1950s, and the giant U.S. Saturn V rocket that propelled the American Apollo astronauts to the moon. He was one of the mid 19th century's most notable proponents of space exploration, which was an issue he was delighted to talk about.

Von Braun drove home the imperative to reduce launch costs to create a stable space industry. At the time of the first moon landing he claimed costs were $500 per pound to launch loads into low Earth orbit (LEO). He wanted a fully reusable launch vehicle that could do the job for one-tenth of that — or $50 per pound — and enable NASA to get on with the job not only of establishing a space station and moon base, but also of exploring the planets.

Today, according to the congressional watchdog agency, the General Accounting Office, it costs $10,000 for the shuttle to deliver a pound to LEO. Admittedly, these are current dollars that don't buy as much as 1960s dollars bought, but the trend is not encouraging.

The shuttle's problem is it is not fully reusable, as von Braun had wanted. The system jettisons the tank for the liquid-fueled main engine, and experts must recover the solid rocket motors (SRMs) from the sea and refurbish them at substantial expense.

That situation hasn't changed since Columbia made the first shuttle flight on April 12, 1981. Nor will it change until scientists develop a post-shuttle vehicle to optimize performance. This is what Dan Goldin tried to do during his tenure as NASA administrator, but he finally gave up the quest two years ago.

I have some personal experience in this business. In 1977 I was a bottom-of-the-food-chain subcontractor on the shuttle program, preparing a technical report on the SRMs for United Space Boosters Inc., a subsidiary established by United Technologies Corp. to perform the refurbishing. I still have my hard hat from my days working in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center.

The one thing that we all understood back then is that SRMs are not appropriate for manned flight. Once you turn them on you can't throttle them or turn them off. That's OK for ballistic missiles that have to sit in hardened silos for years and be ready to launch nuclear warheads at a moment's notice, but it's not OK when human lives are at risk.

In the case of the Challenger tragedy, the SRMs were blamed for the fatal explosion 73 seconds after launch. All the blue ribbon commissions and their elaborate reports won't solve that basic problem. That could happen again.

The investigation of the Columbia tragedy has focused on the tiles that prevent the spacecraft from burning up on reentry. This also was a concern from the very beginning, and I remember what we used to call this the "zipper effect" in which the failure of a few tiles would lead to a catastrophic malfunction.

NASA's solution has been to use painstaking care in applying the tiles, but this is a labor-intensive process prone to failure. Blue ribbon commissions won't change that fact either.

There are financial and psychological impediments to admitting the shuttle won't do the job and moving on to a genuine space transportation system that will.

The reality is that we don't have a space transportation system; we're still in the barnstorming stage. What I have in mind is something like the Interstate Highway System. That project was originally justified by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on grounds of national defense and has since made a major contribution to our national economy.

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