Is The Shuttle Grounded Forever
Honolulu - Feb 19, 2004
Yes, believe it or not, it's now 19 February 2004! Hard to believe this famous date came around so soon. I wonder if NASA is having any official event to commemorate this day? More likely everyone will just leave work early and get dead drunk.
If you have no idea what I'm talking about, obviously you weren't one of the NASA managers who got a copy of the infamous "Space Station Screensaver". This nifty addition to your work PC filled all your idle moments with a continuous digital countdown of the time remaining to the scheduled completion of the "US Core Complete" configuration of the International Space Station. If anyone at NASA was morbid enough to leave this program running, that clock just turned over to zero.
This small program has the distinction of being one of several pieces of software that was cited by the CAIB as a contributing factor in the Columbia crash. Many NASA employees testified that the rigid requirement to launch the "Node 1" module on 19/02/04 caused the intense "schedule pressure" that led the Shuttle managers to ignore numerous safety problems and rush into the launch of Columbia. The CAIB harshly criticized NASA for adopting a rigid schedule for Shuttle launches that took no account of the harsh technical reality that Shuttle is too complex and fragile to ever keep to a rigid schedule.
Yet, the very same thing is happening again. NASA has adopted a rigid schedule for Shuttle that is far too ambitious and is cutting corners in a desperate attempt to keep to that schedule. Already this insane program has killed the Hubble Space Telescope. The next victims will be Shuttle itself, and the International Space Station.
The basic problem is once again, a rigid deadline. The CAIB decreed that the whole Shuttle system go through a complete "recertification" process if it were to fly after 2010. The Bush Administration then decided that this expensive process would be pointless, and adopted 2010 as a definitive end to Shuttle flights as part of its new space initiative.
However, Plan Bush also called for the "completion" of the ISS before Shuttle is retired "in order to meet our international commitments". This will require 25 Shuttle missions. But there were already two "research" flights scheduled before regular Shuttle operations can restart, and two Hubble servicing missions in addition, which added up to 29 flights that had to be flown before the end of 2010. It is now clear that the first research flight will not occur until at least Jan. 2005. So Plan Bush required a minimum of 29 flights in only six years.
But this implies a flight rate of 5 missions a year, which NASA was barely able to support before the Columbia was lost. Now with only three orbiters and a variety of new safety restrictions, it is very unlikely that more than three missions per year can be flown. The banning of night launches alone severely reduces the number of available launch windows in the wintertime.
So it isn't any surprise that NASA is frantically trying to pare down that impossible flight schedule. Already the next Hubble servicing mission has been cancelled for "safety reasons". NASA's argument is that the 25 ISS missions are acceptably safe, but the 2 Hubble missions are not. This is utterly absurd as Bob Zubrin has pointed out. The real reason for scrapping Hubble is to free up that mission for more space station hardware.
Hubble is only the first casualty. Already, two formerly "vital"modules of the ISS have been declared unneeded, and quietly deleted from the "final" ISS configuration. There is also an ongoing effort to eliminate Shuttle crew exchange and supply flights, in favor of increased reliance on the Soviet Progress and European ATV supply ships. It is rumored that this measure could reduce the total number of Shuttle missions to 18, or only 3 per year. However, it seems unlikely that Shuttle could completely withdraw from ISS supply duties; there are many vital replacement parts that are too large to fit through the Soyuz-type docking port used by both Progress and ATV.
So just to be safe, NASA managers are also talking about getting an extension on that 2010 drop-dead date. Remember when they swore in front of Congress that every CAIB requirement would be met without any questions or quibbles? I guess that testimony is now inoperative, or maybe there is no controlling legal authority.
And on another front, NASA has encountered severe difficulties in devising in-flight repair techniques for the Shuttle's thermal protection. The RCC material on the leading edge is hard enough to repair on the ground, and it seems that progress in this area is well behind schedule. Even the seemingly simple task of adding an extension boom and camera to the Shuttle's robot arm seems to be encountering unexpected problems.
But of course, these improvements mandated by the CAIB only address the particular defect in Shuttle that caused this particular accident. Many other long-term problems are not being addressed: decayed wiring, toxic and explosive fuels, structure corrosion, inaccurate documentation, etc. The orbital debris risk continues to increase inexorably. So the total risk of a Shuttle mission will probably not be significantly reduced.
If that is the case, then 25 more Shuttle missions statistically equates to a ~%40 chance of another dead crew. In the current climate, another Shuttle catastrophe would probably kill Plan Bush and manned space flight as well. What possible benefits from ISS could be worth this risk?
Everybody says that the Shuttles will return to flight sooner or later. I say that it is time to start thinking about the unthinkable. What if Shuttle never flies again, because of "technically unresolvable safety issues"?
Actually, things don't look so bad. Suddenly that huge $24B budget wedge allocated to Shuttle and ISS in 2005-2010 and the marching army of Shuttle servants are free to be redeployed for Plan Bush. Suddenly there IS money for real hardware, instead of "just artwork" in John Pike's pithy phrase.
Even more significantly, in a Shuttle-free universe the new CEV spacecraft and its still-unnamed superbooster would have the undivided attention of NASA management. There would be no continuing manned program with its inevitable cost overruns to suck money away from R&D. Instead, everyone would understand that rapid completion of the CEV is essential to keep space flight alive. There would be no chance that it would be allowed to fail like all previous Shuttle replacement vehicles.
The only real problem here would be the other nations participating in the ISS program, who would suddenly be left high and dry. But I've been waiting for the international partners to attack Plan Bush, and instead they have mostly been positive about it.
For instance, no ESA official has pointed out that all the partners signed binding commitments to operate ISS for ten years after "completion", not six years as proposed in Plan Bush. This suggests that the ESA is as sick of the ISS fiasco as we Yankees are (it sucks up an even larger proportion of their budget than it does NASA's). Throw them some big CEV contracts and they will fall into line. After all, ESA designed and flight-tested a prototype CEV command module way back in 1998 so they have lots of relevant experience..
Is this the real Bush Space Plan? Was this intended right from the start?
In this model, the current Plan Bush is just a politically sellable intermediate plan to get the contractors and politicians all mentally accustomed to a Shuttle-free environment a few years down the road. Thus the shock of Shuttle termination will be lessened, when it is finally announced sometime after the November elections. Lockheed and Boeing will get big contracts for CEV and Super-EELV, about the same size as their current Shuttle and Station contracts. No NASA centers need close. Everybody is happy.
Could this particular "conspiracy" theory actually be true? In every decision that doesn't make sense, there are usually two possible explanations: actual stupidity and a deep conspiratorial plan that only looks stupid on the surface. NASA is so technically stupid that it is often hard to tell which explanation is correct.
But the timing of the Hubble bombshell right after the big Presidential announcement is politically stupid, stupid at a level that is impossible to believe. Anybody with half a brain could see that it would stir up a big discussion on Shuttle safety and the relative merits of Hubble and ISS.
Even NASA doesn't make political mistakes this stupid. They are very much attuned to public opinion and skilled in manipulating it. They would never have made this announcement right after the presentation of Plan Bush unless they intended to stir up a controversy about Shuttle safety.
And as for the Bush Administration, this is exactly the kind of indirect approach they have adopted for most of their major initiatives. They are very clever at taking advantage of the blind Bushophobia of the Administration's opponents. They always start out by doing something very different from (sometimes exactly the opposite of) what they really want to do. Then when the first plan is denounced by the news media and the Democrats, they reverse course and do what should have been done in the first place.
Then the President's opponents congratulate themselves on having "forced" Bush to abandon another misguided plan. This ploy works best if the original plan is really stupid and obviously failing (e.g. letting looters run wild in Baghdad), but this isn't really necessary anymore, since Bush-bashing has become so reflexive that any program he suggests is automatically attacked.
So if I were a betting man, I would give you 5:1 right now that Shuttle will never fly again, and that the decaying ruin of the ISS will be deorbited within 5 years.
Jeffrey F. Bell is Adjunct Professor of Planetology at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. All opinions expressed in this article are his own and not those of the University.Related Links
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