Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Remembering STS-107

Click the arrow to watch the NASA tribute video, "Sixteen Minutes from Home."

The loss of Columbia nine years ago set in motion a sequence of events that still impact humanity's future today.

Seven more astronauts lost their lives. Once again, we were reminded of the consequences of hubris.

The Challenger investigation report limited itself to the physical cause of the accident and the NASA culture that allowed it to happen.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board pulled no punches. Their report was a scathing indictment not only of the decision-making process that led to the accident, but also of NASA management and a failure of political leadership to properly fund U.S. human space flight.

The summary of Chapter 1 stated:

Although an engineering marvel that enables a wide-variety of on-orbit operations, including the assembly of the International Space Station, the Shuttle has few of the mission capabilities that NASA originally promised. It cannot be launched on demand, does not recoup its costs, no longer carries national security payloads, and is not cost-effective enough, not allowed by law, to carry commercial satellites. Despite efforts to improve its safety, the Shuttle remains a complex and risky system that remains central to U.S. ambitions in space. Columbia's failure to return home is a harsh reminder that the Space Shuttle is a developmental vehicle that operates not in routine flight but in the realm of dangerous exploration.

The Board also showed a distinct lack of faith in NASA, citing a cultural arrogance resistant to change or external advice. The report stated on Page 102:

External criticism and doubt, rather than spurring NASA to change for the better, instead reinforced the will to "impose the party line vision on the environment, not to reconsider it," according to one authority on organizational behavior. This in turn led to "flawed decision making, self deception, introversion and a diminished curiosity about the world outside the perfect place." The NASA human space flight culture the Board found during its investigation manifested many of these characteristics, in particular a self-confidence about NASA possessing unique knowledge about how to safely launch people into space.

The report led the Bush administration in January 2004 to announce the Shuttle would be retired once the International Space Station was completed. In a January 14, 2004 speech known as the Vision for Space Exploration, Bush proposed a new launch system that came to be known as Constellation. It consisted of two vehicles — the Ares I to take crew to the ISS, and the Ares V for deep-space exploration.

Five years later, Constellation was years behind schedule and billions over budget. An August 2009 Government Accountability Office audit concluded that Constellation "lacked a sound business case." Later that year, the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (commonly known as the Augustine Committee) concluded that Ares I wouldn't be ready until 2017 — two years after the ISS would be decommissioned to pay for Constellation under the Bush plan, meaning Ares I had nowhere to go. The Ares V wouldn't be ready until 2028, if ever.

Constellation was only for launching crew. In November 2005, NASA announced a new Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office "to spur private industry to provide cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit and the international space station in support of the Vision for Space Exploration."

Part of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, the office is located at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston. NASA named Alan J. Lindenmoyer project manager. The office will manage orbital transportation capability demonstration projects that may lead to the procurement of commercial cargo and crew transportation services to resupply the space station.

The commercial sector will soon get an opportunity to provide these services. In testimony before a Congressional committee last week, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said, "Later this month NASA will issue a draft solicitation requesting commercial service demonstrations for space station crew and cargo delivery and return. Where commercial providers have demonstrated the ability to meet NASA's needs and safety requirements, commercial services will be purchased instead of using government assets and operations."

More than six years after this announcement, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are scheduled to launch in 2012 the first commercial cargo delivery flights to the ISS.

Later this decade, commercial crew flights will begin, flown by at least one of four companies competing for the NASA contract.

A private space station is being built by Bigelow Aerospace in partnership with Boeing, one of the four commercial crew candidates.

Other companies such as XCOR and Stratolaunch are developing Low Earth Orbit delivery vehicles independently of NASA's commercial office.

And Constellation has been cancelled.

What if the Columbia accident had never happened?

What if every flight since STS-107 had ended safely?

Would we still be flying the Space Shuttle today? Probably.

There would have been no Vision for Space Exploration, meaning no solicitation for a commercial launch industry to ferry cargo and crew to the ISS.

Access to space would still be a government monopoly.

The seven lives lost on STS-107 can never be replaced. Their loss had consequences no one could have foreseen nine years ago on February 1, 2003.

Click here to visit NASA's STS-107 crew memorial page.

Previous: "A Complex and Risky System" "Columbia’s Legacy Reminds NASA to Avoid Being Distracted from Future Mission" "Nine Years of Space Policy Disaster"

Spaceflight Now "From Tragedy to the Gap: How America Got There"

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