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The LA Times has an article today about dissension within the ranks of the astronauts over whether or not the Shuttle should have a crew escape system (registration required).

"We can't afford to lose another crew," said former chief astronaut Robert "Hoot" Gibson, who attended Tuesday's meeting. "We have to put in place an escape system. The young astronauts say we don't need it, but we shouldn't listen to them."

Yeah, what do those stupid youngsters know? Well Hoot, maybe they know something that you apparently don't--we can't afford a crew escape system, at least one that's practical and useful. The Shuttle in its current form simply cannot accommodate one, despite the fact that it probably can't be made much more reliable than it is (yet another reason to retire it). Entire fleets of new vehicles could be built for the costs of trying to knit this sow's ear into a silk purse (at least if done by the private sector).

Indeed, astronauts are divided on the issue. Some have said crews deserve a fighting chance to survive, given the frailties of the space shuttle. But other astronauts have rejected the idea, saying they accept the high risk and that placing an escape system into existing orbiters is not practical or affordable. Putting too high a premium on their safety could kill the space program, some worry.

They should worry. Charles Bolden and Norm Thagard have it right:

"The reason we don't have a crew escape system is that it has been thoroughly assessed and the people who did the assessment said it wouldn't work," Bolden said. "We need to educate the public that the astronaut business is dangerous work."

Norm Thagard, associate dean of Florida State University's School of Engineering and a former astronaut, agreed with Bolden that the costs would be prohibitive and the benefits uncertain. Thagard, who once flew combat missions over North Vietnam, said, "Historically, it was acceptable that astronauts could die too. I wonder what kind of a world we live in if the public can no longer accept that kind of risk."

But some don't want to accept reality.

Rhea Seddon, a medical doctor in Tennessee and veteran of three shuttle flights, said she remains open-minded about the need for an ejection system.

"Some people say we have to suck it up and we have to take our losses," Seddon said. "I am not sure everybody is real comfortable with that approach."

If you're not comfortable with that approach Rhea, you can go get another job. You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, and there are many people waiting in line to take your place if you don't like the odds now.

The ego of some of these people just infuriates me. They're stuck in the sixties, when people actually cared about the space program, because we were in a death struggle with communism. They think they're irreplaceable, but don't think through the consequences of losing another third of the orbiter fleet, which would be much more devastating to the program.

There are some other dirty secrets revealed in this article.

...the shuttle is mostly flown by computers already and the few manual flight duties performed by pilots, such as the final landing approach and space docking, could also be automated. The only reason pilot astronauts have any role in flying the shuttle is that they exercise enormous clout within NASA.

"They don't call them the astronaut mafia for nothing," Nelson said.

Not surprisingly, astronauts have rejected Nelson's idea.

In this case, the astronauts are right, in the sense that the escape system being proposed doesn't make any economic sense, but this shows the tension between spacecraft engineers and astronauts that goes all the way back to the early sixties, and the umbrage that test pilots took at being "spam in a can."

The problem is that Shuttle, despite its airplane-like appearance, was designed based on a heritage of transportation-by-munitions that came out of Apollo. It cannot be redesigned to be either safe, cheap or reliable. A truly piloted vehicle will be a new vehicle, from the ground up (and no, that doesn't mean Orbital Space Plane). Private enterprise is finally working on the problem, no thanks to NASA, or the government in general.

But if we want to simply continue the farcical and costly charade that is our "manned spaceflight program," Shuttle is good enough, just as it has been for twenty plus years, and NASA will never have trouble finding people to fly it as long as it flies, with or without a pointless and outrageously expensive bandaid solution of a "crew escape system."

After all, it's clear that no one in a position to make policy really cares that much about affordable or routine, or even safe access to space, as long as the money flows into the right congressional districts and countries, and the Shuttle (and the space station) have both proven to be world beaters when it comes to that.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 04, 2003 10:11 AM
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Gibson and Seddon are married to each other.

Gibson left NASA (after being Chief Astronaut and Deputy Director of Flight Operations I believe) to become a pilot with Southwest Airlines.

From Dragonfly, I got the impression that Gibson had some conflicts with upper management. The things he's quoted as saying aren't exactly complimentary to the higher ups.

I don't know what's really going on here. But there's clearly evidence of all sorts of conflict. And I suspect too many people involved don't trust NASA anymore. I do know I would like to talk to everybody quoted and gain more knowledge about the conflicts. It might actually help our cause, Rand.

Posted by Chuck Divine at June 4, 2003 12:13 PM

I can't imagine an escape system that would have worked at the speed/altitude of the Columbia at the time it would have been required.

I don't know enough about the Challanger accident but I would assume the g-forces related to the whole thing would have made an escape problematical at best.

Posted by ruprecht at June 4, 2003 01:03 PM

Ruprecht is right. An astronaut escapre system would be the NASA equivalent of something as wacky as Congress, in response to some tragic event, passing a law that bears absolutely no relevance to the event.


Hey, wait a minute...

Posted by Kevin McGehee at June 4, 2003 02:14 PM

And when do we install the escape system on the 747 I have to fly to Houston in support of Shuttle Flights???????

Why is his butt more important than mine??????

Posted by Michael at June 4, 2003 03:16 PM

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