Monday, July 4, 2011

A Complex and Risky System

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board meets in Cape Canaveral on March 26, 2003. Source: NASA.

Despite efforts to improve its safety, the Shuttle remains a complex and risky system that remains central to U.S. ambitions in space.

— Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, August 2003.

The final Space Shuttle mission is scheduled to launch on Friday July 8. Much time and space is being dedicated to the impact this event will have on the future of U.S. human space flight.

Little, if anything, is being said about why this is the last flight.

The decision was made in January 2004 by the Bush administration in the wake of the Columbia disaster. The administration's steps were taken after the release of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) Report in August 2003.

Click here for a PDF version of the CAIB report.

The report is a scathing indictment, not just 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 Bush administration's actions in January 2004, including the Vision for Space Exploration, were a response to CAIB's conclusions and recommendations.

Start with the Report Synopsis. On Page 13, the report describes Chapter 8, "History as Cause: Columbia and Challenger."

This chapter captures the Board's views of the need to adjust management to enhance safety margins in Shuttle operations, and reaffirms the Board's position that without these changes, we have no confidence that other "corrective actions" will improve the safety of Shuttle operations. The changes we recommend will be difficult to accomplish — and will be internally resisted.

Chapter 1, "The Evolution of the Space Shuttle Program," discusses the compromises made in designing the Space Transportation System. The chapter concludes on Page 25:

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.

CAIB members examine debris from Columbia's left wheel well, March 25, 2003. Image source: NASA.

Turn forward to Chapter 9, "Implications for the Future of Human Space Flight," and you'll find this conclusion on Page 210:

... [B]ased on its in-depth examination of the Space Shuttle program, the Board has reached an inescapable conclusion: Because of the risks inherent in the original design of the Space Shuttle, because that design was based in many aspects on now-obsolete technologies, and because the Shuttle is now an aging system but still developmental in character, it is in the nation's interest to replace the Shuttle as soon as possible as the primary means for transporting humans to and from Earth orbit.

All of that conclusion was italicized in the original, suggesting the Board considered it important to emphasize their conclusion.

The Board surmised that "at least in the mid-term," an interim solution would be the Orbital Space Plane in some form.

This conclusion implies that whatever design NASA choose should become the primary means for taking people to and from the International Space Station, not just a complement to the Space Shuttle ... The nation must not shy from making that commitment. The International Space Station is likely to be the major destination for human space travel for the next decade or longer.

And in a conclusion perhaps prescient of the Obama administration's current approach to human space flight, the report stated on Page 210:

The Board does observe that there is one area of agreement among all parties interested in the future of U.S. activities in space: The United States needs improved access for humans to low-Earth orbit as a foundation for whatever directions the nation's space program takes in the future.

The "observation" is italicized in the original.

The Board also showed a distinct lack of faith in NASA, citing a cultural arrogance resistant to change or external advice. The report states 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.

That certainly sounds like the reaction we hear and read today among those trying to protect the NASA status quo in the face of commercial crew and cargo development.

The report also cited on Page 177 "the lack of an agreed national vision" as an organizational cause for the accident. The repeated use of the word "vision" in the report, and the cited lack of one, may explain why Bush's January 2004 proposal was called "Vision for Space Exploration." The report comments on Page 210:

The Board observes that none of the competing long-term visions for space have found support from the nationʼs leadership, or indeed among the general public. The U.S. civilian space effort has moved forward for more than 30 years without a guiding vision, and none seems imminent. In the past, this absence of a strategic vision in itself has reflected a policy decision, since there have been many opportunities for national leaders to agree on ambitious goals for space, and none have done so.

President Bush announces the Vision for Space Exploration on January 14, 2004.

The approach taken by the Bush administration after the Vision was to restrict Shuttle flights to ISS construction, except for one Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission added in May 2009. The administration decided that January to use the Soyuz rocket and crew vehicle system for routine ISS crew rotations.

On January 28, 2004, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told the Senate Science Committee it would be a minimum of four years after the retirement of Shuttle before its replacement would be ready, and in the interim NASA would rely on Soyuz for crew rotation. This came to be known as "the gap," and it should be no surprise to those who years later express outrage that today the United States must rely on Russia for ISS crew rotation until commercial crew is ready circa 2015.

The Bush administration intended to eventually replace Shuttle with what came to be known as the Constellation program. That program included the Ares I, which would take astronauts to low earth orbit and the ISS. But the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (commonly known as the Augustine Committee) concluded in late 2009 that Ares I wouldn't be ready until 2017 — two years after the ISS would have been decommissioned to pay for Constellation under the Bush plan, meaning Ares I had nowhere to go. That's why an August 2009 Government Accountability Office audit concluded that Constellation "lacked a sound business case."

The Obama administration's Commercial Crew Development program hopes to have commercial crew rotations by 2015, and uses the cost savings to extend the ISS to at least 2020.

The Space Shuttle was a magnificent technological achievement. It helped create a space station that will be the foundation for the next leap of human technology. But its design flaws have doomed it to retirement. Although in the short run we lose capabilities such as satellite rendezvous and cargo delivery, that doesn't mean those capabilities will be impossible to replace. We just need to find a 21st Century means of doing so.

Some argue that Shuttle should have continued to fly until a replacement vehicle is ready. But they overlook that Shuttle's primary mission was to construct the ISS. That mission is accomplished.

The next mission is full-time operation of the ISS, which means priority should be given to crew and cargo delivery. Those tasks are performed far more cheaply and safely by other technologies, such as the Soyuz system flown without a fatality by the Russians since the 1970s. Commercial crew and cargo will soon provide the U.S. with those technologies, with cargo deliveries scheduled to start in 2012.

The Shuttle's unique capabilities are no longer required. The money spent on the program — at an average of $1 billion per flight — should now be spent elsewhere, to develop 21st Century technologies, not to perpetuate a flawed 1970s design.

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