Friday, November 04, 2005

Adding 'Safety' to Space Flight?

NASA made the best of a bad set of circumstances. They were using outdated technology, with little option to discard the bad technology. They had to make use of the shuttle because of political concerns - current plans by the Bush administration still call for over 25 more missions with the current shuttle! (Bell, 2004) If the shuttle were cancelled, there are many technically superior and more cost effective launch platforms available (ibid.).

The engineers at NASA looked at the statistics for space travel - it is an inherently risky business - and concluded that spending billions of dollars for escape hatches, ejection seats and more was not a worth while use of taxpayer money. The escape methods would only be of use for the few seconds that the shuttle would be within the atmosphere on liftoff and descent. Even the escape pole installed after the Challenger disaster is only useful when the orbiter is in a controlled glide above 20,000 feet - an unlikely scenario for a disaster( Halvorson, 2001). NASA shuttle program development manager Elric McHenry admits the escape pole would not be effective under most failure scenarios (ibid.). Political pressure to "do something now!" most likely led to the installation of this flawed escape tool. More effective systems that would protect the whole crew from a wide variety of failure modes require extensive reconstruction of the shuttle, cost over a billion dollars to install, and reduce the available payload, already low at 50,000 pounds (Halvorson, 2001). The decision was rational to meet the political pressures. However, from a true safety standpoint or a budgetary view, it was irrational - it adds little to crew safety and added a large sum to the cost of the shuttle. The decision to install the escape pole was a classic example of a satisficing decision - to obtain an outcome that is good enough, rather than excellent. It is a sad state that NASA, once the paragon of maximising actions now makes decisions like this to meet political pressures.

If I were in charge of NASA, I would have made a different decision - that the shuttle has outlived its' usefulness, and we should instead concentrate on newer technology, like a space plane, and use old, proven technology like big dumb rockets for package launches. However, the shuttle is a politically popular spacecraft, and is the symbol for the American space program. Replacing it with cold-war era missiles would not be a popular decision. Additionally, major US aerospace firms have a billion dollar a year vested interest in keeping the shuttle in place - Boeing, Rockwell, Lockheed-Martin, among others (Meyer, 2002).

The decision to add safety measures to the shuttle, along with the decision to keep the shuttle flying, should be revisited by NASA and the government. The four-billion dollar a year investment, along with the 30,000 employees that keep the shuttle running, could be better directed toward R&D. Ideas like maglev launch, nuclear engines, and the space elevator require major funding (Meyer, 2002). Funding that could come from the failed shuttle program.

Bell, J. F. (02/19/2004). "Is The Shuttle Grounded Forever?" Space Daily website. Retrieved 11/04/2005 from

Halvorson, T. (04/11/2001). "NASA Studies Advanced Shuttle Crew Escape Systems (Online)". website. Retrieved 11/04/2005 from

Meyer, C. (11/01/2002). "Scrap the Shuttle Program (Online)". Space Daily website. Retrieved 11/04/2005 from
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