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NASA Investigators Recommend Space Shuttle Replacement and New Debate on Spaceflight Mission - 2003-08-29

Chairman Admiral Harold Gehman summarized the causes of the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew: “I would say there were two causes to the accident. The first cause was the foam that came off and hit the reinforced carbon-wing. The second was the loss within NASA of its system of checks and balances.”

Admiral Gehman and the board concluded sufficient checks and balances could have possibly led to a rescue effort to save the shuttle and its crew. During Columbia's ill-fated mission, the report said NASA managers missed at least eight opportunities to evaluate damage to the orbiter's wing. Some engineers knew that the one-kilogram chunk of foam insulation that struck the shuttle just after launch posed a possible threat to its heat shield.

On numerous occasions, engineers did make requests for images to be taken of Columbia in orbit to assess the damage. But their requests were never acted upon. The report concluded that NASA's management structure prevented their concerns from being heard fully by top mission decision-makers.

This illustrates a flaw in the communication lines at the space agency, says Alan Ladwig, a former NASA manager and now Chief Operating Officer of Zero Gravity Corporation – a company that aims to give the public an opportunity to experience weightlessness without going into space: “What was lacking was the ability for people at the lower end of the operations chain to get the attention of the mission directors so they could flag that they had a very serious issue. As the report discusses, it was too much about engineers having to prove why this is a problem rather than to take a hard look at why it was dangerous in the first place. And that's a kind of intimating environment to be in.”

Mr. Ladwig says that kind of intimidation kept some engineers from speaking up when Columbia's mission manager Linda Ham tried to track down who made the request to investigate possible damage to the shuttle. She eventually dropped the request because she could not find the source of it. The report added that management had become careless and overconfident since similar foam strikes had occurred on past missions with no adverse effects.

On this flight, the foam strike proved catastrophic: the errant piece of foam pierced the shuttle's left wing and doomed its return to earth. The shuttle broke apart over Texas just 16 minutes short of its Florida homecoming. All seven astronauts were killed.

Sally Ride, a former astronaut and the first American woman in space, served on the investigation board. She told The New York Times newspaper that NASA managers took a painfully similar approach in 1986.

At that time, the burden of proof also rested on engineers who warned possible flaws in the solid rocket booster O-rings were unsafe. This defect led to the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger just after lift-off.

She says NASA managers should be inquisitive to a fault. If there's any hint of a problem, they must get to the bottom of it by all means.

Investigators said that despite the loss of the Challenger 17 years before, the space agency had returned to a risky attitude towards safety. The report said we "strongly believe that if these persistent flaws are not resolved, the scene is set for another accident." NASA says it accepts the conclusions and will follow all recommendations made by the board.

In addition to management cultural reform, the board made a significant long-term suggestion that it is in the "nation's interest to replace the shuttle as soon as possible." Observers say this will boost efforts to develop a new vehicle soon.

Former NASA manager Alan Ladwig believes the next generation of space vehicles should not be as complex as the shuttle. He says the shuttle program never delivered on its early claim that it would make access to space safe and routine. Instead of flying nearly 50 missions a year as originally planned, the vehicle remains an experimental craft that blasts into space less than 10 times a year.

“When you have a transportation system that requires over 17,000 people to operate, that's really hard to get an effective communication chain going," says Mr. Ladwig. “That is why many of us think that the next generation launch vehicle really needs to be much more simple to operate, and you do that with hundreds of people instead of thousands.”

Mr. Ladwig adds that the next generation launch vehicle should be able to get into space at a cost much less than the shuttle. A single shuttle mission costs about half a billion dollars.

Investigators hope their report will not only encourage discussion about new launch vehicles, but also spark a far-reaching public debate on the purpose of human space flight. Chairman Admiral Gehman: “This report should now be the basis for what we hope will be a very vigorous public policy debate about what do we do now. What is the United States' vision for human space flight? And what should be the balance between human space travel and robotic space travel?”

Some in the U.S. space community want to see humans go to Mars or back to the moon. Investigation chairman Gehman advises that these kinds of missions would be very expensive. The board also criticized U.S. lawmakers for under funding NASA and said if congress wants bolder missions, it must be willing to provide sustained funding in the long term.

Louis Friedman, Executive Director of the Planetary Society, an advocacy group that promotes exploration of the solar system, says humans should only be involved in space missions that are truly exploratory: “Human space exploration is a very risky endeavor and will be so for a long time. It should only be undertaken when the potential gain is worth the cost. To have what humans do what can be done with robotics or to have them do routine operations (like launching satellites from low-Earth orbit) in space are not things that are worth the loss of human life. What humans should be doing is the one thing that they can uniquely do. That is exploring new worlds, going into bold adventures that break the frontiers down. That will be worth the cost and that is what the role of humans in space should be.”

But physicist Robert Park, author of Voodoo Science and past President of the American Physical Society, says non-manned or robotic space exploration is the way to go:

“One of the first questions that I heard after the Columbia report came out was: when are we going back in space? And my answer is we are already there: the Hubble Space telescope is still sending its data in. We have two robots on the way to Mars. There is not anything we can't do on Mars with robots. These are not autonomous robots that we are sending. They are telerobots or mere extensions of the human operator back on earth -- the human's eyes and ears and fingers, only a million of miles away.”

And former NASA manager Mr. Ladwig's vision of future space exploration is to make space more accessible for everyone, not only astronauts: “My vision for space sees a lot of people doing things. Not just the technical community, but the artist community, the humanity community, the business community -- people actually up there and doing things in space. That's why I favor more focus on inexpensive launch vehicles, reducing the cost of access to space.”

Whatever the future mission of space exploration, U.S. lawmakers are beginning congressional hearings that will look at the logic and safety of the shuttle. Committee chairman Senator John McCain says, "there is no doubt that the enthusiasm for the whole space effort has waned over the years. Most Americans don't know what we are doing in space." The investigators of the Columbia accident want their report and subsequent debate to change that.