This past Thursday, we lost a true hero, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. With his death, none of the first Americans to go into space are any longer with us. His bravery — as a Marine aviator in World War II and Korea, and as a test pilot in the 1950s, when he attended colleagues’ funerals on an almost weekly basis — had been well established before he climbed into the Mercury capsule that sent him into space in 1962. So he was willing to ride on top of an Atlas rocket which, in its ballistic-missile form, had a significant chance of failing.
His odds were somewhat better than that, because his rocket had been “man rated,” with higher-quality parts, additional redundancy, more thorough inspections, and a beefed-up structure. (It also had a launch-escape system to pull the capsule rapidly away if something went wrong with the vehicle.)
But the risk was still high; the first unmanned test of the Atlas-Mercury, in July 1960, had resulted in a complete loss of vehicle, and the medical risks of several hours’ free-fall were still poorly understood. Some flight surgeons were concerned that Glenn might even lose his eyesight.
In the end the rocket performed fine, and he suffered no obvious ill effects from the experience, surviving to enter the history books.
But it’s worth remembering why he was willing to risk his life on a space flight in the first place. In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, space was important and worthy of such risk. We were going to the moon to demonstrate our technological superiority to the Soviets and the world, and Glenn’s flight was a crucial milestone on that path.
Half a century later, that sense of importance — and the willingness to take risks that came with it — has been lost.
SLIDESHOW: Astronaut John Glenn
Two weeks ago, there was a failure of a Russian Soyuz rocket delivering supplies to the International Space Station in a Progress cargo ship. After separation from the lower stages, the third stage of the rocket, needed to provide the final delivery to orbit, didn’t complete its burn — it seems in fact to have exploded — and the ship fell out of the sky, its pieces scattering in southern Siberia.
The loss didn’t create an emergency at the station, which has sufficient supplies to last months — more than long enough for another cargo mission to arrive, whether with Soyuz or another entity, such as SpaceX or Orbital ATK. (In fact, a Japanese cargo flight went up a few days ago). But it highlighted a bigger problem: While we have a number of ways to get cargo to the station, since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the Russian Soyuz is our only way of getting crew up and back. And the stage that failed two weeks ago is the same stage used to get the Soyuz crew module into orbit.
We don’t yet know why the stage failed. It’s flown successfully many times, so it’s unlikely to be an intrinsic design flaw. It could be due to sloppy procedures, or a faulty component, as a consequence of the general deterioration of the Russian space industry amid corruption and turf wars. While it’s not the first time this stage design has failed, there has been no such failure with crew aboard. Whether it’s because officials take greater precautions with crewed flights or simply because of dumb luck is also not known. But either way, while NASA hasn’t yet made a big deal out of it publicly, until they understand the cause, they can’t trust the rocket to get its astronauts to the ISS, and they won’t be able to rotate crews.
Why do we currently have only one means to get to the International Space Station? And why are we unwilling to risk an astronaut’s life on it when it has had a failure? Why is it that, over half a century after John Glenn’s famous flight, our mantra has gone from “Beat the Soviets to the moon” to “Safety is the highest priority,” a phrase used repeatedly in Congressional hearings?
In my book a few years ago, I argued that it is because space is no longer important enough to justify the risk of human lives, at least with taxpayer funds. And that when safety is the highest priority, actually accomplishing things in space becomes a lower one by definition.
When safety is the highest priority, actually accomplishing things in space becomes a lower one by definition.
“Safety is the highest priority” is the reason that we don’t have a replacement for the Shuttle, in terms of our ability to get our astronauts into space on American vehicles. NASA has long had a Commercial Crew program to do so, with two providers, SpaceX and Boeing, and it was originally supposed to have been operational by now. But it has been delayed for years, both because of penny pinching by a Congress more eager to fund an unneeded, overpriced rocket and capsule that will rarely fly and because NASA must follow the “safety first” mantra — with extensive program reviews, milestones, and inspections — to ensure that we don’t lose an astronaut. Which is ironic, considering that NASA has much more insight into the new commercial systems than it’s ever gotten from the Russians on whom it has relied for half a decade.
The SpaceX Dragon pressurized capsule was first launched and recovered almost exactly six years before Glenn’s death and the most-recent Soyuz failure, and at the time, company founder Elon Musk said that if someone had been aboard “they’d have had a very nice ride.” Then-head of safety for the company, NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox, told me that all he’d have needed was a “scuba tank, a regulator, and a beanbag chair.”
But today, the first flight of a crewed Dragon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 has been delayed until mid-2018, and the first flight of Boeing’s “Starliner” capsule will happen even later than that. Because today, “safety,” not getting Americans into space on American rockets, is “the highest priority.”
If he chooses to, this is one of the things that President-elect Trump can “make great again.” But it will require a major change in attitude and policy direction, and some of his finalists for NASA administrator provide grave cause for concern.
#related#In particular, Mike Griffin, who served as administrator under George W. Bush, would be a terrible choice. The last time Dr. Griffin ran NASA, the agency maintained a cozy relationship with the private contractors it employed, a revolving door of the sort that Trump and those in his orbit have lately railed against. Partly as a result, Griffin left his successor a programmatic mess, and while it would be ironic if he became administrator again and re-inherited that same mess, the best way for Trump to honor the memory of John Glenn (who late in his life saw private spaceflight as the future) would be to pick a fresh face, with a fresh approach not tainted by the failed ideology of Apolloism. NASA needs a leader who is willing to tell Congress that our space future lies not with giant rockets, but with commercially affordable ones, and that when it comes to spaceflight, safe is not an option. A leader who understands that the acceptance of risk is necessary to show that American spaceflight matters, as it used to. A leader, that is, with the courage and vision of Glenn himself.