View Full Version : Discussion: Great Opinion Piece Over at Space.com

2003-Sep-06, 10:43 PM
SUMMARY: Someone pointed this out in the forum yesterday, and I thought I'd make a mention in the newsletter about the great opinion piece at Space.com. Check it out: COMMENTARY: NASA Has a Vision, It's Our Nation That Needs Glasses.

In other news, I just wanted to remind you about the Weekly edition of Universe Today. If you're finding the daily edition is just too much to stay on top of, subscribe to the weekly edition instead - it's a lot lighter on the mailbox. Click here to access the newsletters page and modify your subscription options.

Fraser Cain
Universe Today

Comments or questions about this story? Feel free to share your thoughts.

2003-Sep-07, 03:40 AM
Ok, I read the NASA flag-waving piece. In my opinion its just more hoopla from the space enthusiasts that pretty much misses the point of what the problem is. I think most of us want to see space exploration continue and believe it is probably worth the cost, so we don't need this pointless grandstanding, that misses the mark on how to make it happen.

The bottom line here is that NASA has struck-out twice now. If they strike out again in the next few launches, it might just be game over for all our wishes. We need to take steps to help insure that it doesn't happen. Pay close attention to the report that General Deal will issue in the near future on a multitude of other problems that are actually more serious than the foam that put a hole in the wing. These other problems are problems that are relatively easy to fix but problems that NASA management has turned its back on also.

Right now, NASA is only beholding to the President and the Congress. For too long, Congress has failed to provide the necessary oversight, allowing NASA a pretty much free reign to develop their problematic "culture" in ways that benefit those in charge at the expense of protecting and furthering their main mission. This reckless running of such an important organization must end. It is not just another shuttle that's at risk here, but possible the future of all mankind.

Your article's writer suggests that Mr. O'Keefe is not to be blamed too harshly because he inherited the problems from his predecessor. I beg to differ. Mr. O`Keefe inherited a mess, did little to correct it, and still doesn't acknowledge what the problem is or that he is responsible for fixing it. During the Senate hearings, he says he "gets it", but asked quite pointedly why "no heads have rolled", his reply of "why should heads roll, when none of the targeted actions were malicious", indicates that he doesn't get it, that in fact he really doesn't have a clue!

Obviously, the actions or should I say inactions of those responsible were probably not malicious. They were uninformed and risky. These people, probably all good people, surely didn't want to see anyone get hurt, or put the mission at risk, but that does not equate to their being competent or qualified to remain at such an important post. It was Mr. O'keefe's responsibility to see that his employees and managers were fit for the job at hand. Obviously few were.

You can hire people with the engineering degrees that let them crunch the numbers to give you the safety risk and reliability numbers, but that doesn't mean that they will have the guts or the courage to then take those numbers and do what needs to be done to make their peers and managers take the appropriate actions. When keeping their job takes precedence over their mission, they simply need to work elsewhere and those egotistical "bottlenecks" to safety and progress need to be canned.

President Reagan, once faced with a similar decision, fired all of the FAA's Air Traffic Controllers, in an effort based mostly on keeping the skys safe and insuring that people working for the citizens and taxpayers of this country know exactly who their ultimate boss is and what is expected of them.

If these people are allowed to remain at their jobs, I see little reason to expect that anything will have been fixed at NASA.

President Bush and the Congress need to stand firm in their view that those in charge at NASA stand up to their responsibilities and like Ron Dittemore honorably did, stand-down and make way for a better future, or maybe there won't be much of a future for us to worry about.


Al Globus
2003-Sep-08, 03:29 PM
It needs to recognized that the shuttle has a ~2% failure rate and there is no reason to believe this will change. In fact, on page 13 of the Columbia report the Board states that they have no confidence that the shuttle can be safely operated by NASA for more than a few years. I presume this is because the board found that while the technical reason for the Columbia accident was different than Challenger, the organization reasons were almost identical: managers over-ruling engineers, managment asking engineers to prove the vehicle unsafe rather than requiring them to prove it safe, ignoring repeated out-of-design events, and so forth. Whether the shuttle is inhearantly unsafe depends on your definition of safe. If 2% failure rate is safe, then it's safe. Note that the airline industry has a 1/2million failure rate.

With regards to goals, this article repeats the let's go to Mars story. The problem with Mars is that its the wrong goal. Sure, there is good science to do on Mars, but there is no urgency and robots have a much better record of producing good space science than people do. A human mission to Mars would be very expensive and, frankly, the average American won't get much out of it. With Apollo (the Moon landing) we got something we needed, we beat the Russians and it played a role in winning the cold war. Notice that as soon as we landed on the Moon public interest rapidly declined. Also notice that President Bush senior ordered NASA to go to Mars and the whole thing flopped.

The Board, in the Columbia report, noted that there is little agreement in the space community over our goals in space. Some like Mars, some want orbital tourism, some want to go to the Moon, some want solar power satellites, some want orbital space colonies (my fovorite) etc. What all of the groups need, the Board notes, is inexpensive, safe access to orbit, something the shuttle can never supply. The Board recomends that NASA be directed to develop that capability. I suggest that NASA devote at least 50% of it's budget to improving Earth-to-Low-Earth-Orbit transportation. Specifically, NASA should:

- do R&D, particularly materials and propulsion
- provide test and launch facilities
- sign firm contracts with multiple private companies for the first dozen or so human-capable launches from new vehicles. This pays for a flight test program. The companies can use this guaranteed market to get private funding. The taxpayer doesn't pay a dime until something actually reaches orbit and returns.