Politics & Policy

Worth the Mission?

Where's the explorer's risking-taking instinct at NASA?

Almost a year after its last flight, NASA has begun the countdown to attempt a flight of the space shuttle this coming weekend (weather permitting — a tropical disturbance currently in the Caribbean threatens Cape Canaveral and central Florida with rain, clouds, and lightning, which could potentially result in repeated daily postponements until the system moves on). If they do launch, it will be only the second flight in the almost three and a half years since the loss of Columbia over the skies of Texas on February 1, 2003, and the first since last summer’s return to flight, in which many were alarmed at the appearance of foam again falling off the external tank.

Given how much money we spend on the shuttle program whether we fly or not (billions of dollars per year), last summer’s flight cost in excess of ten billion dollars (the amount of money spent between it and the loss of Columbia). This next one will probably cost another five. So it’s not surprising that NASA, or at least some parts of NASA, are in a hurry to get on with it.

But despite the long delay since the last flight, the decision to launch has aroused controversy. At least two key personnel had given a “no-go” authorization at the recent Flight Readiness Review. One of them was Bryan O’Connor, the Associate Administrator for Safety and Mission Assurance, who (as his title indicates) is responsible for flight safety and reliability. The other was chief engineer. Mike Griffin, the NASA administrator, overruled them and made a decision to fly.

Many have criticized this decision, claiming that it was reminiscent of the same kind of “launch fever” that destroyed the Space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, with their crews. There are two differences, though.

First, the previous decisions were made out of the public eye, with dissent against them discouraged by management. This decision was made in the open, with an explanation publicly provided by the administrator, and ample opportunities for discussion and disagreement.

Second, the risk of concern (more foam falling off the external tank, and striking the orbiter in a manner similar to that which doomed Columbia) is to the vehicle, but not necessarily to the crew, despite hysteria on the part of some of the critics. Even AA O’Connor agrees with this, which is why he has accepted his boss’s decision to go forward. This is because in the event of damage to the Thermal Protection System, unlike the ill-fated Columbia, Discovery will be going to the International Space Station (ISS), where they will have more options: Potential damage can be inspected and possibly repaired, and if not, the crew can stay there safely until a rescue vehicle can be brought up to return them to earth.

It’s not likely that this will be a problem — we flew over 100 flights previous to the loss of Columbia, and we probably lost foam every time — we just weren’t looking for it — so last July’s “close call” isn’t necessarily as worrisome as some would make it out to be. But if this does occur, it would likely represent the end of the shuttle program (an eventuality that can’t come soon enough for some, even some space enthusiasts). It is no secret that Dr. Griffin would like to end it as soon as possible, to free up money for the president’s new lunar/Mars initiative, and has basically stated that he would end it if there’s another accident, not just because it would be yet another indicator of the system’s unreliability, but because it’s probably impractical to complete ISS construction (the only purpose for which shuttle survives at all) with a fleet of only two orbiters. And the dirty secret, of course, is that despite talk about using the ISS in support of the new exploration programs, the only real reason we’re spending the many billions of dollars and years that it will take to complete it is (uncharacteristically, in the thinking of many reflexive opponents of this administration) to meet our obligations with our international partners in Europe and Japan. But even that reason wouldn’t be good enough in the face of another major shuttle mishap.

Which really gets to the point of the matter. Our national reaction to the loss of a shuttle crew, viewed by the proverbial anthropologist’s Martian (or perhaps better yet, a Vulcan), would seem irrational. After all, we risk, and lose, people in all kinds of endeavors, every day. We send soldiers out to brave IEDs and RPGs in Iraq. We watch firefighters go into burning buildings. Even in more mundane, relatively safe activities, people die — in mines, in construction, in commercial fishing. Why is it that we get so upset when we lose astronauts, who are ostensibly exploring the final frontier, arguably as dangerous a job as they come? One Internet wag has noted that, “…to judge by the fuss that gets made when a few of them die, astronauts clearly are priceless national assets — exactly the sort of people you should not be risking in an experimental-class vehicle.”

What upset people so much about the deaths in Columbia, I think, was not that they died, but that they died in such a seemingly trivial yet expensive pursuit. They weren’t exploring the universe–they were boring a multi-hundred-thousand-mile-long hole in the vacuum a couple hundred miles above the planet, with children’s science-fair experiments. We were upset because space isn’t important, and we considered the astronauts’ lives more important than the mission. If they had been exploring another hostile, alien planet, and died, we would have been saddened, but not shocked — it happens in the movies all the time. If they had been on a mission to divert an asteroid, preventing it from hitting the planet (a la the movie Armageddon, albeit with more correspondence to the reality of physics), we would have mourned, but also been inured to their loss as true national heroes in the service of their country (and planet). It would be recognized that what they were doing was of national importance, just as is the job of every soldier and Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What those who criticize Dr. Griffin’s decision to move forward with the launch are implicitly saying is that the astronauts’ lives, and the vehicle, aren’t worth the mission, and that they have, in fact, infinite value relative to it. Every month that we delay the return to flight costs hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, with an army of shuttle technicians sitting around, their skills getting rusty (which brings its own risks). Moreover, no matter how much more time and money is spent in trying to reduce the risk, “safe” will always be a relative, not an absolute term. If completing the station, if finishing this particular mission, is worth anything, it’s worth doing sooner, rather than later, so we can sooner free up the resources for more adventurous activities that are (or at least should be) perceived as being worth the risk of life. Paul Dietz, a frequent commenter to my blog, has noted that if we really wanted to indicate national seriousness about opening up the space frontier, we would, starting right now, with great fanfare, set up a dedicated national cemetery for those who would be expected to lose their lives in that long-term endeavor, and provide it with lots of acreage.

Those who fear to risk the lives of willing, volunteer astronauts are really saying that there is nothing to be done in space that is worth the risk. This is, of course, a symptom of the fact that even with the announcement of the president’s new policy two and a half years ago, we still have never really had a national debate, or decided what we’re trying to accomplish on the high frontier. Until we do, decisions will continue to be driven by pork, politics, and emotion that have little to do with actually becoming a spacefaring nation, the “mission” will continue to not be as important as those who are asked to carry it out, and we will continue to make little progress, at great cost, with our federal space program. 

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism, and Internet security. He writes about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.

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