Skip to comments.Shuttle Crash Raises Questions Over Future of Manned Flights
Posted on 02/02/2003 9:49:41 PM PST by Dave S
Shuttle Crash Raises Questions Over Future of Manned Flights
Already Facing Steep Budget Cutbacks, NASA May Reassess Ultimate Mission By J. LYNN LUNSFORD and NICHOLAS KULISH Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Why is America still sending men and women into space?
Long before the shuttle Columbia disintegrated while entering the atmosphere Saturday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Congress were deadlocked over the future of the 30-year-old shuttle program. Now, though the rhetoric in the wake of the disaster speaks of guts, glory and the manifest destiny of space exploration, the nation inevitably will face this fundamental question.
Initially the shuttle was part of NASA's dream to send people regularly into space and eventually to Mars. For all practical purposes, it has become a vehicle for trips to the not-yet-completed International Space Station and for science experiments in a weightless environment. The nation's only manned space program has shrunk along with NASA's budget, which at about $14 billion is less than 1% of the national budget. That is tiny compared to the Pentagon's $294 billion budget in 2001.
The champions of manned space flight argue that the nation's space program has an acceptable safety record given the risks, and that the human quest to learn compels space exploration. "The human race has been about exploration since it crawled out of the swamps on four legs," said one dejected NASA controller as he walked to his car at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Saturday. "If you're not exploring, you're dying."
President Bush, delivering the somber confirmation of the seven astronauts' deaths to the nation, promised: "Our journey into space will go on."
First, of course, NASA must sort out why Columbia broke apart, littering Texas and Louisiana with debris. The space agency Sunday named retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehnan Jr. to lead the investigation; divers were exploring an east Texas reservoir where an object the size of a small car was reportedly discovered in the vicinity of other floating debris.
The shuttle Columbia's fate might have rested on unseen damage to heat-resistant tiles caused by a chunk of insulating foam that peeled away from the external tank and collided with the ship's left wing on the day it was launched. Engineers at NASA initially concluded that the foam likely didn't cause any serious damage. But on Saturday, before flight controllers lost all contact with Columbia, temperature sensors on that wing began failing. Late Sunday, NASA said it now knows that temperatures on the ship's left side climbed significantly, and that its autopilot began maneuvering to compensate for increased drag.
"We have some confidence that it was a thermal problem rather than a structural failure," shuttle manager Ron Dittemore said during a news briefing on Sunday.
Limits of Manned Missions
Saturday's crash will likely accelerate the move toward more unmanned space exploration. "One way to limit the risk is to only put people in space when you have to have people in space," said Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology and national-security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "To make it a show, like has been done in the past, and to have lots of experiments done by astronauts when they could just as easily be done by robot vehicles, is taking risks that don't need to be taken."
There are only three places in the solar system that astronauts can travel to safely using available technology: the moon, Mars and an asteroid. The other planets and moons would take too long for an astronaut to reach without suffering debilitating effects of weightlessness. Even if astronauts could get to those planets, they would be crushed by phenomenal gravity or seared by baking heat. That's why NASA sends only unmanned probes to Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune.
Since 1986, when the shuttle Challenger exploded, unmanned Atlas and Delta rocket programs, operated by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., respectively, have become the primary launch vehicles for U.S. military and commercial satellites, a task initially envisioned for space shuttles. The shuttle hasn't carried any commercial satellites since the Challenger disaster.
The space-shuttle program also has been used for numerous scientific experiments aimed at everything from understanding how human physiology has been affected by microgravity to growing perfect and pure crystals for use in pharmaceuticals. But critics say scientific advances have been minor relative to their costs.
"Any specific mission you can identify to do in space, you can design and build an unmanned space craft to do it more effectively, more economically and more safely," said Alex Roland, a professor of history at Duke University and for eight years a historian at NASA. Manned space flights are more about capturing the public's imagination than science, he said. "It's circus, it's just pure circus."
Indirectly, NASA and Congress have recognized the limits of manned space exploration by whittling down the budget. NASA's percentage of the federal budget has dropped to 0.76% in 2001 from a high of 4.41% in 1966.
Space exploration has become a far less pressing national priority since the early 1950s, when the technology was new and computers were the size of industrial refrigerators. Then, the reason why manned space exploration was better than unmanned space exploration seemed obvious. Only humans had the adaptability to test the limits of space travel. The Air Force and the nascent NASA both started manned programs -- with the Air Force's aim to build space stations capable of hurtling missiles to earth and spying on enemy nations.
In the early years, the manned space program provided an indirect but important service to the military. By pioneering the peaceful use of space -- and turning astronauts into world heroes -- NASA helped establish the idea that space was the common preserve of humanity. Since then the Air Force dropped its manned program.
But manned space exploration continued to define NASA's mission. President Kennedy gave the program a huge boost when he announced the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. NASA budgets jumped, and the race to the moon became yet another Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. The program was meant to buck up Americans and to impress developing nations.
Jim Jones, 66, a retired chemist at NASA who worked at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the 1960s, remembers that astronauts were treated like movie stars. They drove matching Corvettes, never had to pay for a drink and held legendary parties at motels. Almost everybody in the towns surrounding the space center stopped what they were doing when there was a launch.
"The excitement was really something back then. Even the fruit pickers who worked the orange groves inside the Kennedy Space Center were a big deal," Mr. Jones said Saturday evening, finishing dinner with his wife at Fat Boys Bar-B-Que in Titusville, Fla. A sign outside the restaurant said simply: "God bless them all."
By the time Neil Armstrong took his giant step in 1969, NASA's budget, as a percentage of gross national product, was declining. The country was at war in Vietnam, and people were arguing that federal dollars would be better spent on poverty programs. NASA's ultimate ambition was to go to Mars, but it never again had national backing for its grand plans. The last administration to seriously consider a manned Mars mission was that of the first President Bush -- and the idea was scratched after cost estimates for the mission came in at about $500 billion.
Instead, NASA fought a series of bureaucratic battles to reach that goal in stages. The plan was to build a shuttle, which could service a space station, an orbiting laboratory and logistics center. Then, the idea was to launch probes to the moon and Mars from the station. A much-reduced version of the space station, which NASA started building in 1998, is expected to be completed in about 2006.
The shuttle was built without even a commitment to a space station. That meant NASA had to invent other uses for the vehicle, such as depositing satellites in space and conducting space science.
After the Challenger explosion, it became clear that the shuttle would never be a cost-effective satellite provider and the science that could be conducted on the shuttle wasn't leading-edge. Instead, NASA used unmanned rockets for satellite launches.
The Columbia was one of four shuttles. Of the 11 shuttle flights in 2001 and 2002, 10 were used to build and service the space station. The ill-fated Columbia mission was one of the rare NASA shuttle missions still devoted to science.
The space station is a far-less-ambitious platform than originally envisioned from which to launch America's dreams of space travel. It doesn't have the ability to launch rockets farther into space. Thus, the manned space program has essentially turned into a construction project shuttling between the earth and the space station, which hovers about 220 miles above earth and is designed to do modest space-science experiments. Ironically, after the Cold War space race, the justification for manned space exploration increasingly has become international cooperation, particularly between America and Russia.
The shuttle program has had difficulty attracting funding, particularly for ambitious proposals to upgrade the fleet with new spacecraft. The funding debate is set against the backdrop of an ailing commercial space industry, which has been hard hit since the late 1990s by the failure of several ambitious satellite-based telecommunications schemes and a dearth of demand from other paying users.
NASA officials for years had warned of the need to field a replacement for the aging shuttles. The Columbia, for instance, was first put into service in 1981. But last November, a continuing budget crunch at NASA forced the agency to scale back a project to develop the shuttles' successor. At the time NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe proposed extending use of the current shuttle fleet to 2020. Some estimates peg the cost of fielding a fleet of new-generation, reuseable space vehicles at about $30 billion -- a huge amount of money given that NASA's priority is completing the already over-budget space-station project.
There is little question that without the shuttle, the completion of the International Space Station would have to be abandoned or delayed for years. NASA says that for now, the three people aboard the space station are in little danger. They have enough food, water and oxygen to last through June. Russia Sunday launched a rocket to resupply the three-member crew.
But their space vehicle, a version of the Soyuz capsule used during the space race, is unable to fill the shuttle's role. The Soyuz spacecraft is capable of carrying three people and minimal cargo, compared to the shuttle, which sleeps seven and can carry a bay full of large cargo. Unlike the shuttle, the Soyuz parachutes to earth in an unpopulated area of Kazakhstan. Russia built one space shuttle, but it never flew.
One of the Soyuz capsules is docked as a "life boat" at the space station, but one U.S. astronaut said "it would have to be a pretty bad emergency to make you actually want to climb inside it."
The shuttle program had been seen as a safe and effective workhorse, having suffered only one accident -- the 1986 Challenger disaster -- in 112 missions until the disaster on Saturday. NASA had been instituting what it called a Space Launch Initiative, a five-year, $4.8 billion program to develop next-generation alternatives to the space shuttle. But the General Accounting Office and others criticized the plan as too ambitious and costly. Late last year, NASA scaled back the effort, and told Congress that it would focus on upgrading the current fleet of shuttles and an orbital space plane that Boeing is developing.
In deciding to stretch out the life of the shuttle fleet by investing an additional $1.6 billion over the next few years, Mr. O'Keefe told reporters last November that the reusable space vehicles "are still low-mileage assets." The NASA chief described the shuttles as being "really in great shape, not that old and not that stressed." Overall, NASA projects spending about $3.3 billion a year to cover shuttle operations.
The stop-and-go efforts by NASA to modernize its equipment mirror the agency's own struggle in the last 15 years to redefine its mission. Besides the budget cuts, the public has generally lost interest in the short flights of the shuttle. The agency has been searching for a new mission, one that former and current NASA officials admit still hasn't been found.
In the next five years, about one-quarter of NASA's scientists and engineers are eligible to retire, taking decades of institutional knowledge about space missions with them. The current pool of full-time employees that are 60 or older outnumbers those under 30 at the agency by about 3-to-1. Meanwhile, high-tech firms, not the government, have been attracting the best and brightest engineers from colleges.
"Going to the moon was a national challenge," said Vance Coffman, chief executive of Lockheed Martin Corp., who began his career in the military space business. "That activity drove hundreds of thousands of new people into the industry and now they're of an age where they're going to retire." Defense contractors like Lockheed and Boeing, which are two of the leading contractors to NASA, are seeing a similar falloff in their engineering talent in coming years.
A GAO report in 2001 found that "NASA's shuttle workforce had declined significantly in recent years to the point of reducing NASA's ability to safely support the shuttle program." A new report released by the agency just last week found that while the agency has hired 200 full-time employees to ameliorate that issue, "staffing shortages in many key areas remain a problem." (See full report)
As the accident Saturday demonstrated, space remains a hugely risky endeavor. The explosion of the Challenger shortly after it lifted off from Cape Canaveral was caused, investigators determined, by cold weather contributing to the failure of a rubber O-ring. That allowed fiery gases to escape from the solid rocket boosters and ignite the huge external fuel tank feeding the shuttle's main engine.
At the time, many people were shocked that such a simple failure could have led to disaster, but the accident underscored the point that every rocket launch could potentially end in an explosion.
"The ascent (and) the recovery are very, very difficult tasks" that leave crews "totally at the mercy of" the shuttle's computerized systems, says Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, a former astronaut. "You are holding your breath and saying a prayer," he adds, because malfunctions are "part of the risk every astronaut accepts."
-- Andy Pasztor, Anne Marie Squeo, Bob Davis and Evan Perez contributed to this article.
Write to J. Lynn Lunsford at email@example.com and Nicholas Kulish at firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated February 3, 2003 12:08 a.m. EST
Uhhh....that's sorta what each passenger on every jetliner does, every day when they're flying in an airplane. They're risking their lives on someone and something else's capabilities.
I sure hope this isn't scrapped. If they have to make corrections, duh, make em! But don't stop sending man into space!!!!! Sheesh.
But not per trip. If commercial airliners fell out of the sky twice in 130 flights, the airlines would be closed down in one day. We have 25,000 flights a day and often go months without a domestic crash.
I think they need a more focused mission, say a flight to Mars in 20 years, along with some unmanned flights to the far planets, etc. They dont need five or six Shuttle flights a year which appear more for public relations than for real space science. But as this article mentions, the Shuttle program started doing less than cutting edge research because that was the only mission still available to the Shuttle. Commercial satellites since Challenger have been launched by rocket.
Hey China has got to find some way to employ all those engineers they are graduating.
Can you name any that have been attributable to the manned Shuttle program?
This is nuts.
My column on the subject for UPI went out the door early -- yesterday. The title is "Those in Peril on the Sea." It states exactly why, based on our history all the way back to the Mayflower, why neither the shuttle program or space exploration in general, will cease. It ends with a quote from Melville's Moby Dick.
I'll post it on FR as soon as it is up on UPI.
Click for latest column for UPI, "Historians against History (HAH!)" (Now up on UPI wire, and FR.)
Not true. The Buran flew into space once, in November of 1988; launch, two orbits and return to earth but without a crew.
Can you name any that have been attributable to the manned Shuttle program?
Yes, I have a toilet in my basement that flushes upwards, thanks to NASA.
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