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Well, I was wrong.
A year ago, right after the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, I predicted that the standdown from the Columbia disaster wouldn't be anywhere near as long as the one after the loss of the Challenger (over two years), but it now looks as though it may in fact approach it.
My reasons for that prediction were two:
First, that the shuttle was needed to support the continued construction and maintenance of the space station (a circumstance that didn't hold in the late 1980s). Second, I didn't think that the investigation would reveal as much of a problem this time as when Challenger was lost, in terms of poor NASA judgement.
But apparently, in the wake of the harsh criticism of the Gehman Commission, NASA has become ultraconservative in Shuttle operations. The unwillingness to risk a Hubble maintenance mission is one symptom of this. The recent announcement that the first post-Columbia flight will be delayed until at least a year from now is another.
I didn't agree with the Hubble decision (and continue to disagree), and I think that NASA is being too cautious now in delaying return to flight. Of course, I thought they were after Challenger as well--they could have safely flown a month later, as long as they did it in reasonably warm weather that wouldn't freeze O-rings, and much of the redesign of the Solid Rocket Booster joints was overkill, or at least it wasn't necessary to wait until it was complete to start flying again.
Is the Shuttle as safe to fly as it can possibly be right now? No, but that's a foolish standard.
While "Safety First" has a nice ring to it, there has to be a rational balance between safety and effectiveness. After all, the safest flight of a Shuttle (or for that matter, any vehicle) is the one that doesn't occur at all (effectively the course taken over the past year, and apparently the next as well).
We are spending almost as much on the Shuttle when it doesn't fly as we would if it were--NASA can't simply put the processing staff in cold storage until they decide to fly again, and if they lay them off, there's a good chance that they won't be available when they decide to return to flight, so we're spending the money and getting very little value for it.
I've long argued that, despite the national keening and wailing when astronauts die, the real asset at risk in a Shuttle launch is the orbiter itself, of which we now have only three left, and each of which would cost many years and several billion dollars to replace, given that the tooling needed to build them, and many of the subcontractors who contributed to their construction no longer exist. We simply couldn't afford to risk losing another one, and have any hope of maintaining a viable fleet into the future.
But that argument went away on January 14th, when the president announced his new space policy.
In fact, as September 11, 2001 was a watershed date in our foreign policy, January 14th, 2004 was, or at least should be seen as, a similar demarcation in national space policy. On that date, among other things, it became formal policy of the United States that we would no longer rely on the Space Shuttle into the indefinite future. That policy implicitly converted the Shuttle fleet from a precious and irreplaceable asset to be protected at all costs, to a depreciating one, from which as much value should be extracted as possible before it is retired in a few years.
The Gehman Commission report came out before January 14, and while it requested a new space policy vision, it didn't necessarily anticipate it. While it recommended augmenting Shuttle with a new manned launch system, it didn't necessarily recommend eliminating the Shuttle quite as quickly, and if it had, the recommendations might have been a little different. To the degree that NASA policy remains driven by the CAIB recommendations, it would be useful to have a reconvening of the commission and revisit them to determine if the president's new policy might modify them.
Under the new policy, there will be no more than another couple dozen flights or so of the fleet. It's unlikely that what happened to Columbia will happen to another vehicle, because even if the foam problem isn't fixed, the chances of a repeat over that number of missions is very low. After all, this was the first time it happened in over a hundred. And even if there is another event, we could probably still complete the ISS with the remaining fleet of two, though it might delay it another year or so. In addition, the president's policy implies that completion of the ISS is no longer an urgent national goal (most Beltway insiders know that the main reason it wasn't cancelled was to avoid upsetting the international partners--not because it's in any way essential to the new goals).
Under those circumstances, we really should ask ourselves if the costs of modifying the Shuttle system for improved safety, and the opportunity costs of not flying while continuing to pay the salaries of the Shuttle program personnel, are really worth the avoided (low) risk of not losing another orbiter and crew.
A rational assessment might indicate that the answer is no, but then, one can't always expect rational assessments to prevail in programs so dominated by politics as our space program remains, and I suspect that decisions will continue to be made on the basis of a mindset that's "soooo January 13th."Posted by Rand Simberg at February 25, 2004 12:48 PM
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Safe Enough In A Zero Defect Space
Excerpt: Rand Simburg has put up a very good article that makes some very good points. Unlike him, however, I am not surprised that NASA is going to take longer to return to flight. In fact, I will be surprised in...
Weblog: The Laughing Wolf
Tracked: February 27, 2004 06:49 AM
The answer to these problems and ills with the space programs seems simple, but the execution may be complex; privatize.
I suspect I'm preaching to the choir, however. How do we convince a reluctant congress to loosen the control strings and launch a valid X-Prize style office, and tax breaks for companies who operate in that realm?
From the reaction that high-tech and space get when you talk about this stuff on Progressive blogs, and the lukewarm mention that NASA has gotten from the Left, the Demoratic Party is not going to do _anything_ along those lines.
Which leaves the Right. Is there a Space and Freedom faction in the Republican party? How does one go about agitating for something like that?
BrianPosted by Brian at February 25, 2004 02:48 PM
Before Columbia, I was wondering how NASA would react to any serious failure (even a non-fatal one like an abort to Morroco), in light of the fact that they couldn't just stop dead for several years because of their ISS support commitments. I thought that they might delay non-critical missions, and add restrictions to launches or landings (like daylight only), but would continue to keep the ISS running. There was no way a "mature" system could just stop for several years. Boy, was I wrong.
It's gotten to the point where paranoids are less risk-adverse than NASA has become. It seems that their present policy is to make sure that the entire Shuttle program is preserved intact for immediate display in the Smithsonian.
One of the committments this new policy must have is an admission that failures and tragedies will occur, but that won't be an excuse to stop everything. Safety is a consideration, but not the only one. If we are really going to have a presence on the moon, we can't just pack up every time something goes wrong and someone dies. Unfortunately, in the present culture (of which NASA is only a symptom), I don't think that sort of admission is possible.Posted by Raoul Ortega at February 25, 2004 03:55 PM
The big problem is the combination of daylight only launches and the need to meet the very tight, nonnegotiable launch windows of a high inclination space station. They essentially can't launch in mid to late 2004 and reach the space station without violating one of the key recommendations of CAIB - shuttle visibility.
Yet another reason to lower the inclination of the station...Posted by Rand Simberg at February 25, 2004 06:25 PM
You've nailed it again Rand,
"That policy implicitly converted the Shuttle fleet from a precious and irreplaceable asset to be protected at all costs, to a depreciating one, from which as much value should be extracted as possible before it is retired in a few years."
Brian's response, "privatize" seemed ridiculous with regard to the shuttle (forgive me Brian) but then I realized we could kill two birds with one stone.
It makes no sense privatizing the shuttle because the standing army makes no sense; however, if we consider that to be a sunk cost until 2010, we could allow those partners interested in flying the shuttle in support of the ISS to pay just the additional cost of the flight itself and perhaps a pilot. We give these partners a limited time to purchase slots. If slots (with the gaps filled in) do not go all the way to 2010, then we've just shut down the program that much sooner.Posted by ken anthony at February 25, 2004 06:52 PM
By extension of Mr. Anthony's suggestion, there's no reason that a consortium of private companies (think Sematech or that sort of thing, or perhaps PhRMA) couldn't contribute to the marginal cost of a space shuttle flight in return for any excess space available and a seat or two for some private research scientists to ride up, actually perform lab bench work there at a lab bench, tweaking the experiments, running and re-running and running yet again the experiments, in real time, to help catch up on the huge backload of research payloads, with a return ticket on a Soyuz a couple of months later, all while indemnifying NASA and carrying huge insurance policies.
It'll never happen, of course, and the shuttles seem destined to go to museums. Hopefully in about another 20 or so years there will be some surplus CEVs on the second-hand market.
The STS is still not a mature system. After twenty years it is still treated as a work in process and has never actually become an operational system. At least that's the way a May 2001 CNN special (and a few other sources) presented it, and from what I understand NASA doesn't change its mindset that quickly.
Any private company worth their capital would get copies of all past records, analyze them, and figure out that x part wouldn't need to be replaced for y trips. They would maintain it, not design engineer it. I'm not convinced that an operational use of the shuttle would require such a standing army as we have now. I don't believe that the way we do it now is the only way to do it, or even the best way.
It'll never happen, of course, that private industry would ever be able to get their hands on a shuttle. The only one I would have trusted would have been the Columbia with its sturdier frame, and it's likely too late for those left to convert to operational status.
My fear is that private industry will be frozen out of this new intiative, and opportunities to develop commercial enterprise (and jobs) will be foregone in a program driven by science and engineering and esoteric goals.
I've poked my nose into the space industry in many unique ways, and the looks on some of their faces, from revulsion to snooty superiority, when they find out that I'm a banker by trade are priceless. I do know a lot of truly great and dedicated people in the space industry, but even more than a few of them have some bad thought memes with regard to commercial efforts.
Back to future space transport, while the shuttle may go away, I do truly hope that there are surplus CEVs in the future. I can see a lot of great business models deriving from that possibility...Posted by ken murphy at February 25, 2004 08:57 PM
"given that the tooling needed to build them, and many of the subcontractors who contributed to their construction no longer exist"
You've got bad data on the Orbiter tooling -- it does exist. It's in storage at Michoud Assembly Facility as of late last year.Posted by T.L. James at February 25, 2004 09:07 PM
Really? All of it?
I was given to believe in the '80s (when I was at Rockwell) that much of it was no longer available--that was one of the reasons that NASA had ordered structural spares (which were used to build Endeavor after the loss of Challenger).Posted by Rand Simberg at February 25, 2004 09:32 PM
None taken. I didn't have Shuttle in mind when I said "privitization".
What I did have in mine are the guys (and gals) at Scaled Composites, XCor and their like. Small outfits, new ideas and no organization penalty tied to existing aerospace business. If their investors could be assured that there is a market, one the government won't diddle with at whim I suspect they'd have all of the funding they could handle.
I'm no expert but my understanding is that there really aren't any surplus bodies working on Shuttle. Each and every one has a job vital to getting the fleet flying again. The lazy answer is to claim that NASA designed the workforce requirements for Shuttle to employ all of the Apollo era bodies .. and that may be correct.Posted by Brian at February 25, 2004 09:53 PM
Good question -- I don't have access to an inventory so it may or may not be complete. The implication when the move was happening was that it was all of the tooling, which may in fact mean "all that exists". It's quite a bit of material, complete or not.Posted by T.L. James at February 25, 2004 10:55 PM
I think what we're seeing vis-a-vis the shuttle is a consequence of the unhealthy culture that the CAIB made so much of in their report -- and what I and others have been screaming about for years.
NASA and its contractors have systematically driven out of the field people who show independence and flexibility in favor of people who are notable for submissiveness and rigidity. Yes, there are still quite a few people at NASA who are independent. The field has a hold on our imaginations that will get people to put up with enormous amounts of abuse and dishonesty. But, still, there has been a clear trend away from independence in the field.
There has been a move to ever more rigid bureaucracy in the field. Even when it has become apparent how counterproductive this tendency is, it has been embraced more and more as the solution to our problems.
Now the CAIB has just told the survivors of this process that they're screwed up. Instead of praising them as being the best, the CAIB has damned them as being the worst. And it has slammed the organizational structure for arrogant incompetence.
From the reactions I've seen as an outsider, I think the insiders are entering some kind of psychological paralysis. I could be wrong about this, though. It's a little hard to tell, even with some knowledge gained from the inside.Posted by Chuck Divine at February 26, 2004 07:51 AM
Ken wrote:"there's no reason that a consortium of private companies ... couldn't contribute to the marginal cost of a space shuttle flight in return for any excess space available and a seat or two for some private research scientists to ride up".
There is no spare space, no spare seats. Every STS mission to station is either bulked out (no space) or massed out (no spare lift). Every mission there are fights for mass allocations of pounds, not to mention hundreds of pounds.Posted by ech at February 26, 2004 10:05 AM
This is exactly what I expected. When Challenger died I was devastated, and very shocked when the cause became public. When Columbia died I was very sad, but not shocked or surprised. Two shuttles died because of management mistakes. Adding layers and layers of procedure is the natural bureaucratic response. The process feeds on itself. This is exactly why I am so pessimistic about what NASA can do now. There will be occasional bright spots in NASA?s future, but the real future in space will require someone to take big chances, and NASA simply cannot do that.Posted by VR at February 26, 2004 04:35 PM
I don't see the decision to stop Hubble servicing missions as a sign of an over-cautious NASA as you opine, Rand. It's simply time to move on--both past the Hubble and the Shuttle itself.
A replacement for Hubble is already in the works (albeit the Webb Telescope won't image visible light like Hubble, but still it's a Great Observatory). So it's time we let Hubble finish out its service life.
I'm only sorry we've got so many Shuttle missions left to fly to ISS. If I were running NASA, I'd try to get the Shuttle retired ASAP and get on with development of the CEV. After two decades plus of flying Shuttles, it's high time to admit it was a program failure and get back to the Moon. And Beyond.Posted by Thomas J. Frieling at February 27, 2004 07:17 AM
"But apparently, in the wake of the harsh criticism of the Gehman Commission, NASA has become ultraconservative in Shuttle operations. The unwillingness to risk a Hubble maintenance mission is one symptom of this."
I am not sure that NASA is now really ultra-conservative. The cynic in me believes that the "Hubble Decision" was a purposeful attack by NASA. It seems that the NASA attitude is that if they kill a popular program and point to the new space policy outlined by Bush, then some group(s) will get up-in-arms and demand more funding for NASA. (That is, more money so that we can have both Hubble maintenance missions AND the Bush plan to complete the ISS.)Posted by Andrew Corley at February 27, 2004 08:24 AM
Andrew makes a good point and the proof would be in this question... What projects (less visible or as popular as Hubble) have not been canceled even though they do not contribute to the new direction for NASA? Anyone?Posted by ken anthony at February 27, 2004 09:36 AM
I don't know, Ken, but find one that is reliant on Shuttle going to a non-ISS orbit and get back to me.Posted by Rand Simberg at February 27, 2004 09:45 AM
I think we should use the "Hubble Rescue Mission" (a misnomer) as a chance to develop the kind of telepresence technology that could greatly reduce the costs of in-orbit assembly. Wouldn't the money that would be spent on one shuttle mission to Hubble go a long way towards that end?Posted by Kenton A. Hoover at February 27, 2004 10:41 AM
"...find one that is reliant on Shuttle going to a non-ISS orbit..."
Ok, I'll try... ;)
However, I wasn't just thinking of Shuttle missions. If Andrews point is true, that cancelling the Hubble mission is for the purpose of extorting more money from congress, then it may be one of the few (or perhaps only?) things NASA has actually cut.
I have no idea if there was a polical motive or not... but I'd be very interested to find out what people can dig up on the subject (sort of the thing bloggers are absolutely fantastic at doing for all us news junkies -- aka. conspiracy nuts -- out there.) Johnnie Carson: "How out there are they?.."
Andrew's point isn't true. If you're not thinking of Shuttle missions, you're missing the point. NASA cancelled the Hubble mission due to risk aversion, not to extort Congress.Posted by Rand Simberg at February 27, 2004 12:22 PM
I am not so sure that I am off track. But, I do not have Rand's experience in the industry.
In the discussion of how risky an HST mission would be, it appears that the risk has been overstated by NASA. According to an article on SpaceRef.com , the risk of an HST repair mission is no greater than an ISS mission.
I am still left wondering if this is a ploy by NASA to guilt additional funding out of Congress.
Perhaps this is a chance for organizations like Scaled Composites to step up and offer to perform the repair mission. The first true commercial space flight, but who pays?Posted by Andrew Corley at March 1, 2004 11:50 AM
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