The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been celebrating its 50th anniversary by doing what it does best: public relations puffery.
In recent weeks, the agency issued a slick 215-page publication attributing success after success “benefiting society” to itself. Spinoff: 50 Years of NASA-Derived Technologies (1958-2008) blows the NASA horn for purportedly making enormous contributions to: highway safety, “improved” radial tires, land mine removal, memory foam, enriched baby food, portable cordless vacuums, artificial limbs, aircraft anti-icing systems, and on and on. About all NASA doesn’t take credit for is curing the common cold.
But in fact, despite the usual NASA spin, the agency 50 years after its formation is in a huge mess—as is the U.S. space program that it administers.
On the most recent NASA mission, last month’s shuttle trip to the International Space Station, a tool bag containing $100,000 in equipment floated away during a space walk. (How come a NASA tool bag cost $100,000? The grease guns and scrapers were “specialized hardware that had to be fabricated,” claimed a NASA PR person.)
“Lost in Space” was a common headline for the loss.
That sums up NASA now.
The shuttle is about to be “retired”—and for good reason. “In light of the knowledge gained since the loss of Columbia, we believe we have about one chance in 80 of losing a crew on any single shuttle launch,” NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin admitted in a column he wrote for Space News published October 20.
“If we were to conduct 10 additional launches prior to retiring the shuttle, we would incur a risk of about one chance in eight that another shuttle crew would be lost at some point in the sequence,” said Griffin. “These are sobering odds, one reason the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended replacing the shuttle as soon as possible.”
The Bush administration and NASA have planned an end to the shuttle program in 2010 and, in 2015, having manned space flights resume with what NASA calls its Constellation program. This consists of a rocket being called the “Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle” and a capsule to sit on top of it in which astronauts would ride being called the “Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle.”
Between 2010 and 2015, at the earliest, the only way U.S. astronauts would be able to go up into space is as paying passengers on Russian rockets going to and from the International Space Station (a $10 billion project which has now ballooned in cost to $100 billion, most of that U.S. tax money).
And as for money, “Over $7 billion in contracts has already been awarded—and nearly $230 billion is estimated to be ultimately spent over the next two decades” on the Constellation program, the Government Accountability Office said in a report on it in April. But whether the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule will fly in 2015, or at all, as currently designed, remains to be seen. “Computer modeling is showing that thrust oscillation within the first stage of the Ares I could cause excessive vibration throughout the Ares I and Orion,” said the GAO report. This “could create a risk of hardware failure and loss of vehicle control.” In other words, there might be violent shaking at liftoff that could doom the spacecraft. Also, said the GAO, the Ares I rocket might not have enough power to reach orbit. In addition, the GAO said NASA acknowledges that “at this time, existing test facilities are insufficient to adequately test the Ares I and Orion systems.”
GAO said of the Ares I and Orion getting off the ground in 2015: “There are considerable unknowns as to whether NASA’s plans for these vehicles can be executed within schedule goals.”
Compounding this is news reported in October by the The Orlando Sentinel— based on it reviewing NASA “documents and internal studies” and interviews with “more than a dozen engineers, technicians and NASA officials involved in the project”—that NASA is concerned that Ares I could crash into the launch tower during liftoff because of “liftoff drift.” The Orlando Sentinel said the ignition of the rocket’s solid-fuel motor is seen as making it “jump” sideways on the launch pad.
“Bit by bit, the new rocket ship that is supposed to blast America into the second Space Age and return astronauts to the moon appears to be coming undone,” began the The Orlando Sentinel article. It quoted a NASA contractor as saying: “I get the impression that things are quickly going from bad to worse to unrecoverable.”
The article quoted Jeff Finckenor, a NASA engineer who quit the Ares I endeavor in September “in frustration over the way the program is being managed” as saying: “At the highest levels of the agency, there seems to be a belief that you can mandate reality, followed by a refusal to accept any information that runs counter to that mandate.”
That’s an old and consistent criticism of NASA. It was forcefully made by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman as a member of a presidential commission that investigated the disintegration after launch of NASA’s Challenger shuttle in 1986. The Challenger, Feynman stressed, should not have been launched on such a cold morning because the low temperature caused an O-ring to become inflexible—and he demonstrated this by publicly dropping a rubber ring into a glass of cold water.