Sunday, March 7, 2010

Extending Shuttle Would Be "Unwise"

Vice Admiral Joe Dyer is chair of
NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

Florida Today investigative reporter Matt Reed has an article in today' edition which cites a January 15, 2010 NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel report which warns against attempting to extend Shuttle at this late date. Here's the complete section of that report:

The Panel is very concerned about discussions regarding possible extension of Shuttle operations beyond the current manifest to complete the construction of the ISS. The Augustine Committee concluded that the only way to reduce the “gap” in human space flight launch capability between ISS completion and the planned flights of Ares 1 is by extending the Shuttle program well beyond 2010. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) recommended that before the Shuttle flew beyond 2010, vehicle recertification at the material, component, subsystem, and system levels should be developed and completed. One of the options considered by the Augustine Committee was extension of the Shuttle at a “minimum safe flight rate” to preserve U.S. capability. The Committee acknowledged that if this option was selected, a "thorough review of Shuttle recertification conducted to date and overall Shuttle reliability . . . be performed by an independent committee."

The Panel does not support extending the Shuttle significantly beyond its current manifest. We are especially concerned over any kind of "serial extension" where a few flights at a time might be added. The risk of continuing to fly the Shuttle without a recertification and expending the resources to bring the vehicle up to modern standards is more than what we should ask astronauts to shoulder. The Panel does not believe that there is full transparency to the risk. We recognize that such transparency is challenging due to the difficulty in communicating highly technical issues to a largely nontechnical public. Still, NASA must find a way to successfully communicate the level of risk inherent in experimental space flight. The Agency must be supported in doing so by Congress and the Administration. In our opinion, the time to extend the Shuttle was several years ago when there was an opportunity to go forward with an extension certification program of reasonable scope and cost. With sufficient money, manpower, and recertification efforts, it is possible that the Shuttle could be extended. While we are aware of no major systems that are "on the knee of the curve" of wear out, the funds needed to allow full recertification are substantial, and the probability of finding things that demand even more resources during recertification is very real.

The Shuttle is complex by inherent design, and risk is increasing due to aging, wear, and the lack of engineering support from second and third-tier suppliers. Subcontractors who are responsible for key systems, knowing that the demand for those systems is declining or ended, move on to other business leaving key knowledge and capability gaps for the support of continued operations. The current workforce, both contractor and NASA personnel, is declining. They are moving on to other work or seeking employment outside of the Shuttle program. The decline in this experienced workforce raises risk levels for continued operation. The Shuttle is a 1970s design system that has operated post-Columbia with an enviable record of both safety and performance, but the Panel believes that its probable decline is upon us. Extension significantly beyond what is planned through the current manifest would be unwise.

The NASA ASAP Report, along with last year's Augustine Panel report, appear to have played important roles in forming the Obama administration's FY 2011 proposed NASA budget.

Despite all the warnings by independent experts that extending Shuttle would be dangerous, local politicians continue to demand that Obama fund more Shuttle flights.

1 comment:

  1. I agree the Shuttle is a goner, but I don't see the reasoning for canceling Constellation which will be a waste of $11.5 billion and 6 years of work. Now they have no plan and I believe that Obama has no vision as far as space is concerned. What are their "other technologies", they are silent on that issue. I wonder if they have been watching too many Star Trek reruns. Beam me up Barry!