NASA dilemma: Shuttle efficiency vs. Safety

Agency recreates conditions of unrealistic expectations

John Pike is the director of the Space Policy Project for the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington, D.C. based organization that conducts studies and monitors legislation on science and technology issues. In that capacity, he has followed on a daily basis the U.S. space program, including the safety issue in connection with the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. Pike discussed the space program with Sentinel editorial board member John C. Bersia

Q: What are your thoughts about the U.S. space program, manned flight and the space shuttle, specifically, on the 10th anniversary of the Challenger's accident"

A: I think the space program - and particularly the piloted space program-continue to be important symbols of American national identity and provide a very important contribution to foreign policy and national security. But I'm afraid that the space program has gotten caught up in the current budget-cutting mania, and that the resources that are going to be available to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are going to be inadequate to do what it they are being asked to do. As a result, we are recreating the conditions of unrealistic expectations that contributed to the Challenger accident and we're heading for another one.

Q; How essential is manned flight to the continued expansion of U.S. space exploration efforts?

A. It depends on what piece of it you~re talking about. If you're talking about the commercial piece or the military piece, the piloted program is essentially irrelevant. If you'~e talking about the robotic science program that NASA does, that rises or falls with the piloted program. If you're talking about the part of the program that the American people care about and identify with and the part that is important to national security, that is the piloted program.

Q: How far could we go without it?

A: People probably would stop visiting the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. We would have to fundamentally re-evaluate the last half-millennium of American history. The whole point of America ever since Columbus showed up - in fact, since people started coming across the Bering Straits-is that this land is about pioneering the frontier. Without a piloted space program, we're no longer doing that. The end of the piloted program would effectively be the end of the Space Age, the beginning was defined as the place where we would start to open the final frontier.

Q: Are the risks of manned space flight expanding or contracting as we push to open further the door to the heavens?

A: The risks certainly are expanding as the resources available to the shuttle program are being cut back and as safety and quality-assurance programs at NASA are being trimmed.

Q: How do NASA safety procedures today compare with those instituted after the shuttle tragedy?

A: If you read the report of the space shuttle management independent review team, issued in February 1995 and known as the Kraft report, the post-Challenger safety program is the biggest danger to safety in the shuttle program today. Out of Challenger carne a robust, systematic safety and quality program that is separate and distinct from the people who are flying the shuttle every day. They're worried about flying it, whereas the safety people are worried about keeping it safe. The Kraft report said that's wrong, that safety should be everyone's business in general and no one's in particular.

Q: When does greater efficiency approach recklessness?

A: If you read the open letter that Jose Garcia, manager of shuttle electrical systems at NASA, wrote to President Clinton and NASA Administrator Dan Goldin last August, we're past that point. He said that proposed job cuts and other changes would reduce shuttle safety.

Q: Project 10 years into the future. Will there have been another shuttle disaster? More than one? How will the space program have been affected as a result?

A: It would be very surprising if there were not another big shuttle disaster over the next decade. I don't think the shuttle will fly again after the next accident. There was some sense that Challenger was a fluke, that this sort of thing just doesn't happen. But if you have two of these accidents, people will say there's a pattern and that it's just not safe to fly.

Then the question becomes: How do we respond? Do we decide not to fly Americans into space? Do we try to build a new shuttle, something that's a little less expensive and easier to operate, with less risk for the crew?

Q: Do you believe that some purely pragmatic folks at NASA or elsewhere in government see death in space as a cost of doing business''

A. Yes. It's a cost of delivering pizzas. A certain number of pizza-delivery people get killed every year. Yet the nation recklessly continues to order carry-out pizza. The problem that you've got right now is that you've got a fairly risky vehicle in which there's just no way to get the crew out if something goes wrong. NASA certainly knew that Mercury, Gemini and Apollo were risky, and that's why they all had escape rockets. There's no way to do that with this shuttle. If you could build a piloted transportation system that had an escape system back in the 1960s, I don't know why you couldn't build one in the future. One of the problems with the shuttle is that they built it under the assumption that it was safe And it didn't need a robust escape system. Well, it's turned out that they guessed wrong.

Q: Should we then figure on fatalities being associated with the planned space station and other projects?

A: Yes. This is dangerous stuff. It's like climbing Mount Everest, except that you're about 100 times further up.

Q: Assuming you were the NASA administrator and had reasonable carte blanche to beef up safety, what would you do in terms of the space shuttle?

A: I think I would continue to implement the new and improved features like they're doing on it-a high pressure turbo pump 7 liquid engines, etc. But in terms of shuttle-program structure, work force, safety and quality assurance, I would leave it where it was Five years ago. The advantage then was that you had enough people to get the work done without the work force getting excessively stressed. Unlike where NASA wants to be a year or two from now, they had a robust safety and quality program. They're in the process of getting rid of it.

Q: Is cooperation in space with the Russians working out as planned? Are their safety standards sufficient?

A: We've run into a little speed bump over the last several weeks, which is that the Russians don't have the money to implement their part of the plan and would like to have a less-expensive one. We haven't reached closure on that. Having said that, we've managed to kill more people in space than they have. They're different. Given the non-trivial experience they've had in space operations, one would be hard-pressed to assume automatically that an~r differences in our way of doing business and their way represents inferiority on their part. They certainly have less of a mania for paperwork than we do. Nonetheless, they seem to be able to get the job done.

Q: What are the main challenges the United States likely will face in space?

A. There are three. One, what are we going to do after the next shuttle accident? Two, are we going to keep the cooperation going with the Russians? Three, are we going to find a compelling political rationale for extending human presence to the moon and Mars after we finish building the space station~

Q: Explain the key elements of each challenge.

A: After the next accident, some will say we don't need a space program. Some will say we should spend $20 billion on a new shuttle. Others will say we need new transportation systems. Still others will say we need to keep flying the shuttle. Entire forests will be slain in trying to work out that debate. As to Russia, all it will take is political change in Washington or Moscow that would cast us as adversaries rather than partners and the space station comes unglued. On three, we have had the technological capacity to go to the moon or Mars for a quarter century or more. No one has been able to answer the "why" question.

Q: What's your answer to the "why" question?

A: That we need to extend the pattern of political cooperation with the Russians to China and India. That's probably not going to happen during the construction phase of the space station. So we'll have to look for a new project to give Chinese and Indian rocket scientists something to do besides building rockets to shoot at people. Working with them to return to the moon and go to Mars would be a good way of demonstrating that we are partners, not adversaries. We would demonstate that the great powers of the Earth can cooperate with the tremendous challenges of the cosmos, and thus, certainly we can cooperate with those in our own small neighborhood corner of it.

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