The Honorable Bill Clinton
President of the United States
The White House
Dear Mr. President:
The biggest threat to the safety of the Shuttle and its crew since the Challenger disaster is presently under way at NASA. My concerns, as well as those of my colleagues, are falling on deaf ears. In their misguided attempt to economize, they have lost sight of what keeps the Shuttle safe. There are ways to economize and still keep the Shuttle safe, without dismantling the best launch team in the world.
I am a NASA manager with over 30 years at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) working on Manned Spacecraft. Prior to Mr. Goldin's tenure at NASA, I always felt that any concerns I might have had on any subject could be addressed to management and a sincere effort would be made to resolve my concerns. Now I feel I can't even voice my concern. Talented and capable high level managers who I know share these concerns, as a result, are leaving the program. It is very disappointing that for whatever reason these individuals, who would have a much greater impact than my speaking out, haven't had the intestinal fortitude to speak their mind for the good of the program. It is very difficult to have a free exchange of ideas in our present environment. Recently, at a meeting with KSC middle management, Mr. Goldin said, "I have all my people in all the right places and anyone who doesn't line up is gone." An environment for a free exchange of ideas? I don't think so!
As a result of the re-inventing government and budget cutting efforts underway in Washington, all federal agencies (including and especially NASA) are going through reorganization and down-sizing. Mr. Dan Goldin has the difficult task of developing a way to accomplish these goals within NASA. I am writing this letter to elaborate and emphasize my concern about Mr. Goldin's efforts to delete the 'checks and balances' system of processing shuttles as a method toward saving money. Historically NASA has employed two engineering teams at KSC, one contractor and one government, to cross check each other and prevent catastrophic errors. Although this technique is expensive, it is effective, and it is the single most important factor that sets the Shuttle's success above that of any other launch vehicle.
Operational efficiencies within NASA should be accomplished with minimal, if any, effect on the safety of the shuttle and its crew. Anyone who doesn't have a hidden agenda or fear of losing his job would admit that you can't delete NASA's checks and balances system of Shuttle processing without affecting the safety of the Shuttle and its crew.
I know that NASA, like all other federal agencies, needs to become more efficient and economize, but the last place that any sudden or drastic changes within NASA should occur is in the hands-on shuttle processing operations. In our business there is little margin for error and there are no second chances; therefore, any changes should be made judiciously.
The very last place that cuts should be made are in hands-on NASA/contractor shuttle processing efforts from launch preparation through landing. Unfortunately, it has been the first place cuts have been made during the past year, and is now the object of an unconscionable attempt to drastically change the 'checks and balances' system which has been the backbone of safe manned space flight.
Mr. Goldin is trying to be more efficient and do things more economically within NASA; however, because his background lies in unmanned space vehicle operations, he does not understand the additional requirements of manned space vehicle processing. He speaks of safety, but his actions and direction on shuttle processing are anything but safe. I know that there is no one in Congress or the country that wants us to do anything to jeopardize the safety of the shuttle or its crew.
Privatize a national resource?? No, I don't believe it wise nor that it is what the American public wants. The Shuttle is a national resource that belongs to the American public - not a contractor. The Shuttle is also a complex R&D vehicle - you can't privatize its processing like you would the running of a cafeteria. Drastically changing the 'checks and balances' method of processing by taking NASA out of the process and leaving it to a contractor is unwise. It would be better to cancel the manned space flight program than to recklessly endanger a future shuttle and its crew.
All NASA managers, whether located at KSC, JSC, MSFC, or NASA Headquarters would like to think that they are the main reason for the success and safety of the Shuttle. However, the policies and procedures established at KSC and the checks and balances performed by the KSC NASA/contractor team of systems engineers working around the clock are the real reasons for the success and safety of the Shuttle. The flight controllers at JSC and the supporting design centers do a great job, but their performances depend solely on the hardware that KSC delivers.
NASA was in the process of declaring the shuttle operational and turning the pre-launch processing over to a contractor just prior to the Challenger disaster. It was a mistake then and it is a mistake now. Let me re-emphasize what was pointed out by independent post Challenger investigation committees and stated to me personally by Dr. Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist. Dr. Feynman indicated the following to me: "The shuttle is an R&D vehicle and needs to be dealt with as such. The Orbiter is not growing more reliable with time - just the opposite. We are charting new water every day. The environment that the shuttle is exposed to is taking its toll, we don't know the effect it is having on the shuttle. We should be doing more pre-launch checks - not less."
As a current KSC Shuttle Operations Manager, I can attest that over 50% of the turnaround processing work at KSC is unplanned. Our engineers and contractors continually find new areas of concern and develop innovative solutions to keep the Shuttle flying safely. Our current system of 'checks and balances' is an integral part of safely doing this job. It is not an overlap or duplication of effort as suggested by some.
Removing NASA from everyday hands-on Shuttle processing efforts, and instead authorizing NASA to perform only audit functions, would result in NASA processing the Shuttle in the same manner that unmanned launch vehicles are presently processed.
My concerns for this type of Shuttle processing are reflected in the following statistics: Since 1985, the Shuttle success rate has been 97.56% as compared to 95% for U. S. Department of Defense, 87% for U. S. Civil/Commercial and 92% for European Commercial. The Shuttle program has a 98.59% success rate for the life of the program. Please note that if the Shuttle had the same success rate as it competitors, NASA would no longer even have a Shuttle fleet, not to mention the loss of astronaut lives.
Since Shuttle hardware is not only older than that of unmanned launch vehicle hardware, it is also reusable, then why is the success rate of the Shuttle better? Could it be that the processes and procedures and checks and balances used in its pre-launch checkout produce this success?
KSC has made numerous changes to streamline pre-launch processing. Both the contractor and NASA have down-sized (approximately 30%) without significantly jeopardizing Shuttle safety. Until recently, we were continuing our downsizing efforts, but we were doing it prudently. Today, it appears that KSC's management is climbing on Goldin's "BUS TO ABILENE."
The KSC NASA/contractor launch team is in the risk management business. Drastically changing the KSC launch team will unequivocally increase risk to the Shuttle and its crew. If these drastic changes are implemented, the perpetrators should not only be held accountable for their action, they should be held "criminally liable" for the consequences.
The KSC Shuttle launch team (NASA/contractor) is the best in the world. We shouldn't let Mr. Goldin dismantle it. Let's keep KSC a Center of Excellence. We are running out of time. We really need your help. Possibly an independent group, as was formed post-Challenger, is needed to make an independent assessment of the consequence of deleting the 'check and balances' system of shuttle processing. This is the biggest shuttle safety concern since the Challenger accident.
The safety of the shuttle needs your help.
Honorable Congressman Dave Weldon, House, 15th District
Mr. Dan Goldin, NASA Administrator
Mr. Jay Honeycutt, KSC/NASA Director
Mr. George W. S. Abbey, JSC/NASA Acting Director
Mr. John W. Young, Special Assistant for Engineering, Operations, and Safety
Mr. John Manning, Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel
Mr. Michael J. Coleman, President and Publisher, Florida Today
Mr. Thomas Curley, President and Publisher, USA Today