On the Road to Recovery?


Published in Florida Today, 26 August 2003


Cunningham was a member of the backup crew for Apollo 1, served on the Apollo 1 Accident Investigation Committee and flew Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission. His book, The All-American Boys, is currently available in bookstores.

The verdict is in! The recovery is underway, but will it get the job done?

The investigation of the Columbia disaster was conducted in the full glare of public scrutiny, the difficult environment in which NASA has always operated.

It is apparent NASA management has anticipated the recommendations contained in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report. After all, even in their wounded state, NASA knows more about what went wrong and what needs fixing on the shuttle than any committee of instant experts.

NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, announced his intention to go beyond any recommendations of the CAIB when he said, "Recommendations on deficiencies will be not only met but exceeded." He added, "If it applies to the shuttle, it ought to apply to every program at NASA."

That's nonsense! It misses the point completely. In the manned spaceflight business, we have always had to live with trade-offs. All programs do not carry equal risk nor do they offer the same benefits. The acceptable risk for a given program or operation should be commensurate with the potential benefits to be gained. The goal should be a management system that puts safety first but not safety at any price.

O'Keefe says, "We've got to focus beyond [Columbia] to correct everything we think might stand in the way of flying as safely as humanly possible." He sounds like the most devout convert, willing to adopt any and all recommendation or suggestions coming from the CAIB. The agency has made pronouncements about launching shuttle missions only during daylight hours to improve video monitoring; proposed landing all Shuttles at Edwards AFB in California to minimize the danger to people on the ground should another shuttle breakup on reentry; and reducing crew size - an alternative that doesn't improve the odds of survival but does reduce the number of people exposed to the risk.

The most expensive proposal to improve crew survivability is restricting shuttle missions to the same orbit as the station. The station would be occupying a shuttle compatible orbit today if President Clinton had not insisted that Russia be included as a full partner in the project. If the shuttle is constrained to fly only to station compatible orbits, it will cost billions of dollars in lost payload capability and many lost mission opportunities.

NASA should be exploring alternatives to some proposals that make spaceflight in the future more expensive, less useful and not necessarily safer. Do they not believe in a thing they have been doing with the most magnificent flying machine ever built?

Manned spaceflight is not an endeavor that can be "perfected," in the sense that all risk can be eliminated. Since risk is inherent, operating the shuttle will always be risky, never routine and, even after years of flying, will require careful attention and tender loving care. Flight safety should always be a high priority but the key to a successful program is living with risks that are commensurate with the expected gains.

It is wishful thinking to claim the loss of the STS-107 crew was preventable following the insulation strike. Only one thing could have saved the crew: proper risk assessment of the prior insulation failures, followed by aggressive corrective measures. The entire problem with foam insulation would have been handled differently in the 1960s and 1970s.

NASA can be faulted for a number of poor strategic decisions over the last ten years: The false starts on the space station; ignoring all technical and economic consequences in the zealous pursuit of a station partnership with the Russians; accepting the Russians' word for the Mir Space Station reliability that risked the life of American astronauts; and the expensive pursuit of a single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle.

The Orbital Space Plane, as currently envisioned, could be the next high-cost example of poor strategic decision-making. NASA hopes to be using it to ferry astronauts to and from the space station by 2008, but they will still be dependent on the Shuttle's round-trip cargo-carrying capacity to service the station through 2020. And NASA will be faced with simultaneously flying two expensive man-rated vehicles. Because NASA is following their usual strategy of low-balling space plane development costs until it becomes more expensive to cancel than complete, there is a good chance it will never fly.

The hardware, operational and training "fixes" will add cost, weight, and additional complexity to the Shuttle but will improve its reliability very little. In the process, some dubious improvements will get funded and some so-called "fixes" will introduce new risks to the program.

The principal problem, the existing management culture, does not require a bigger budget, or higher pay for NASA engineers or more inspectors to fix. The culture took years to evolve, it permeates the agency and, by its nature, influences the tactical and operational decisions made throughout the organization. Before that culture can be "fixed," it must first be acknowledged as a problem. There is the real possibility that NASA will be unwilling, or unable, or just not know how to correct the organizational problems and management processes that enabled both the Columbia and Challenger disasters to occur.

All the hardware and operating changes in the world cannot protect flight crews from poor decisions spawned by the agency's culture today. Reorganization or shuffling senior personnel will not do the job. It took a couple of decades to establish the current status quo and it will take time to re-establish the approach that worked in the past.

I take no pleasure in contrasting today's culture and "the good old days." I especially don't want to disparage or alienate the many fine engineers and managers who are doing the best they can in the current climate. No one believes for a minute that any of them knowingly or intentionally compromised safety. But the current attitude, stated or implied by Sean O'Keefe and other key managers, is that good intentions or lack of malice or trying their best are acceptable substitutes for good judgment and satisfactory results. It is not!

Overconfidence, particularly by the astronauts, was a factor in the deaths of three good friends in the Apollo 1 fire. NASA culture at the time was strong, individual responsibility and it was little trouble to recover in time to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

Complacency and over confidence, in spite of numerous instances of exhaust gas leakage through a solid rocket booster seal, were factors in the Challenger disaster.

After twenty years of living with foam insulation shedding from the Shuttle's external tank, NASA management became complacent and failed to fix it even as the problem grew more dangerous. Eventually, it was treated as an acceptable flight risk and a chronic maintenance problem that culminated in the February 1 breakup of Columbia.

If NASA management could become complacent about launch and reentry, the two most dangerous phases of any mission, might not this same attitude infect other systems of the shuttle?

An organization's culture starts at the top. Former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin's decade of "faster, better, cheaper" was not better; was less safe and delivered only on the cheaper part. Focus switched to avoiding individual blame or responsibility and risk avoidance became part of the management culture, even as operations became more risky.

Dan Goldin was never NASA's man. He was president Clinton's man and he made no bones about it. He believed that bureaucrats should fall in line, but he was far too accommodating to White House edicts. It would have been nice if he had, just once, fought for the budget NASA really needed.

Today, funding for NASA is one fifth what it was in 1965, less than 0.8 percent of the federal budget, and the space shuttle share of the budget is down nearly 25 percent in the last ten years. Research spending in the NASA safety office and the personnel level were cut nearly in half, wiping away much of the corporate memory, one of the main ingredients of management culture. You can't continue to make draconian cuts in spending and have acceptable mission safety. What you get, instead, is a shuttle flying into a barrage of foam it was designed to avoid at all costs and not recognizing it as a safety of flight problem.

NASA's answer is a new Engineering and Safety Center staffed by 250 engineers. We used to depend on the quality of the decisions not the number of individuals involved. The Center looks like one more layer of bureaucracy, diluting responsibility and insulating management even further from critical decisions, such as launch commit.

Viewing the post-Columbia world, here is what I believe should be done:

Return the shuttle to flight as soon as possible and continue to upgrade it.

Complete the station according to the original plan. The station lifeboat situation should be resolved by taking the X-38 Crew Rescue Vehicle out of mothballs or purchasing Soyuz spacecraft from the Russians.

Forge ahead on the next generation manned spacecraft. It should include a truly reusable, horizontal takeoff first stage, utilizing air breathing injector ramjet technology.

NASA should get serious about manned missions to Mars, giving astronauts a mission to match their dedication and courage and one with potential benefits that justify the risks to which they are exposed.

Yes, this program would cost money but less than NASA's current ill-defined path to the future.

So what will it take to rekindle enthusiasm for the space program? More than what NASA is doing today. Ferrying people and cargo to construct a space station is quite difficult, but it doesn't capture the public's fancy. The public wants men in space doing spectacular things. Witness the enthusiasm for the Hubble Telescope repair. Look at the moon landings. The public wants Buck Roger operating at the boundaries of our knowledge, not "educator astronauts" and the occasional civilian "tourist."

Americans want bragging rights for a national program, not the watered down satisfaction of sharing in an international consortium. Without truly challenging goals at the cutting edge of the envelope, public enthusiasm and Congressional support will stay pretty flat. To paraphrase a line from Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff, "No Buck Rogers, no bucks."

Exploration is in the American character. It is the nature of humanity, and outer space remains "the final frontier." Mars is the next destination because we are compelled to search for life elsewhere in the universe. Mars offers the nearest and best chance of finding it. On such a mission, NASA just might regain its integrity and credibility.

O'Keefe says, "We are not going to be destination-driven." apparently believing we can first develop the hardware and overcome the problems before getting on with a national dialogue about where to go and how to use our new toys.

He couldn't have it more wrong.

It is our goals that generate the need that drives invention, not the other way around. We cannot decide to sit out the next generation of progress and catch up later.

No one, especially Congress, is looking for neat, new technology; they are looking for a plan, a vision, a new mission. If that mission does not include humans, it will not sustain interest and will quickly lose public support. Without a clear destination, human spaceflight cannot be sustained politically.

I do not know whether the current administration is ready to make a serious commitment to the cause of exploration or whether Sean O'Keefe is the right man for the current task. I do know it will be a real challenge for him to regain NASA's founding culture without ever personally experiencing what it was.