12 thoughts on “An Angry Astronaut”

  1. I think you need to specify what NASA regards as safety. They do everything to ensure the safety of their funding. It looks to me like everything, and everyone, astronauts included, take a second seat to the budget.

  2. My experience with NASA – when I was working at Rockwell in Downey CA, my friend who was working the Shuttle engine controller mentioned that they had upgraded the telemetry from 8 bits to 16 bits of accuracy. Subsequently they were picking up “glitches” in the signal that they couldn’t account for. This was, probably correctly, ignored by management because there had never been any issues seen on the flights with the 8 bit. To make a long story short, I looked at the situation on my own and determined that the controller was picking up a signal from a ground based radar. I figured that was the end of it but I mentioned it to another friend in passing who had recently transferred to the Cape. He was an “old crow” and took it seriously and mentioned it to his neighbor who was a shuttle astronaut. Subsequently all hell broke loose, I got reemed out pretty throughly by my boss who was an old Apollo
    guy and the company was giving briefings to NASA for 6 months after that. The upshot is they turned off the radar during launch.
    At that point I had had enough of aerospace and went out on a voluntary open transfer.

  3. Perhaps the root of the problem is that NASA went all in on a vehicle that was inherently unsafe, in that there were too many failure modes and too many critical systems that would not fail gracefully. Most of us could create a long list of fundamental flaws, from segmented boosters to tile to the external foam on the tank, and just go on for page after page.

    So the managers were in the position where they had to ignore their own obsessive safety culture because a hard and objective look would just show that they should build a different space vehicle.

  4. Rand, I agree that NASA is too risk averse, but it’s also been irresponsible in cases such as those cited in the article.

    The thing is, you must be willing to take the highest risk at the start, and it’s higher in proportion to the number of innovations individually and in combined effect.

    It was insane to fly John Young and Crip on that first, multi-billion $ flight of the shuttle of any kind. What you need at the start are relatively cheap test systems, unpiloted, and later non-risk averse pilots for initial human flights.

    This is precisely the direction Elon has been taking with Starships. Look, a few flew, one survived flying, and the rest were superceeded as some key technologies advanced faster than expected. Most ended up disassembled for scrap and/or spending some time in the “Rocket Garden.” So now they’re up to #24 being likely to be on the first orbital vehicle… if other issues don’t creep up. But so what? Elon has shown that it’s possible to churn out 100’s of Raptors for a fraction of the price of a few RS-25s. So losing a whole test vehicle becomes much less catastrophic, thereby permitting hard engineering lessons to be learned before human life is risked with (too many) humans.


    1. It was insane to fly John Young and Crip on that first, multi-billion $ flight of the shuttle of any kind. What you need at the start are relatively cheap test systems, unpiloted, and later non-risk averse pilots for initial human flights.

      Charles I couldn’t agree more. However from what I’ve read, given the state of technology at the time, it would have been impossible to fly the shuttle unmanned (uncrewed for the woke crowd) and way too cost prohibitive to intentionally sacrifice an orbiter to a full up test flight into orbit and into de-orbit into the ocean. NASA backed itself into that corner in the 1970’s nearly a decade before the shuttle’s first flight, nothing you don’t already know of course.

      Musk is certainly on the better course, not that there is ever clearly a “correct” solution, only best among alternatives. But I applaud Elon for conducting a test program that utilizes and exercises the flight hardware in actual test flights with data collection without relying on a simulation to tell him when it’s “safe to fly”.

      1. I think everybody at NASA kind of ignored how they were making a fundamental configuration change without flying a whole lot of test vehicle just to see if a winged vehicle beside an external tank with some solids was going to work out. The had all that Mercury/Gemini/Apollo experience under their belt, so they were experienced rocket experts who could do the math, but there wasn’t any base of practical experience with the proposed configurations.

        But DC politics and budgets weren’t going to give them time to sit back and slowly develop the next logical step, feeling their way through the problem with lots of flight hardware.

  5. Wasn’t the Shuttle orbiter automated anyway? I read once the only thing the crew really needed to do was lower the landing gear. The rest the thing could do itself.
    Adding automation or ground command of the landing gear would have been trivial.

    1. It wasn’t automated until after Columbia, as Rand says. This is one where we could have taken a clue from the Russians: they had a lot of good innovations on Buran. Buran demonstrated its auto-landing system in 1988, though of course they never flew it after that. Too expensive (also a lesson we might have learned.) Having the ability to fly an uncrewed shuttle makes a LOT of sense. The Energia launch vehicle is interesting to, with those kero-lox boosters. I’m not anything more than a Kerbal rocket scientist, but it’s interesting to speculate about what a “perfect” shuttle might have been.

      I’m in no way a Russian fanboy, but got to give those guys props for interesting things they do.

      1. A “perfect” Shuttle would have looked a lot like DreamChaser. Just big enough for seven crew, no cargo, and mounted vertically on top of whatever booster you liked at the time.

        NASA could have been flying those for the Bicentennial, parked the first four in museums, built four more, and retired THOSE in favor of the Mark IIIs, all before Young and Crippen ever reached orbit.

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