The Wrong Stuff Is Tipping the Scales At NASA

By Walter Cunningham
Published in the Houston Chronicle

Walter Cunningham flew on Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, and is author of The All-American Boys (ibooks, July 2003).

In a Sunday Op-Ed article (Advancing Both Science and Safety), NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe defended (once more) the decision he announced in January to cancel the last Hubble repair mission. Mr. O'Keefe claimed it was too risky, citing compliance with the safety recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). But nothing in the CAIB Report precludes flying a mission not associated with the ISS, the only destination on Mr. O'Keefe's shuttle itinerary.

O'Keefe announced he would do everything the CAIB recommended even before their report was finished. But recommendations are just that, recommendations, not something to which management must blindly adhere. Leadership demands that intelligence, common sense and operational factors be applied in considering which recommendations to follow, when, and by how much?

Adm. Harold Gehman, chairman of the CAIB, in response to a request for a second opinion from Senator Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., indicated greater mission flexibility than the NASA administrator is apparently willing to accept. "Only a deep and rich study of the entire gain/risk equation can answer the question of whether [a Hubble rescue mission] was worth the risks involved."

While O'Keefe talks incessantly about reducing risk, he rarely mentions the balance between risk and benefits. Adm. Gehman, at least, acknowledges that each mission is a tradeoff between perceived risk and the benefits to be gained. NASA is the agency best qualified to carry out such an analysis.

In March, O'Keefe agreed to have the decision reviewed once more, this time by the National Academy of Sciences. On that same afternoon, he was telling reporters that no matter what their study found, he considered a shuttle mission to Hubble out of the question. "Somebody else would have to make that decision - not me, because I'm not doing it," he said.

I do not know a single former astronaut in agreement with O'Keefe's obstinate stand on abandoning the Hubble. If we fail at something, it should be because we are unable to do it, not because we are unwilling to try it in the first place. Our attitude in that golden age of flying to the Moon could be summed up in the thought, "If this mission fails, it won't fail because of me!" Now, the administrator seems to be saying, "If anyone dies in space, it won't be because of a decision I made."

Is this one more example of the same flawed decision-making that got the agency into its current state? Fix the insulation and fly, while other improvements are in process.

It's true; some missions are marginally more risky than others. But there will be no return to flight until NASA believes the problem that destroyed Columbia is fixed. This will certainly reduce the need for an ISS safe haven, and work to equalize any differences in risk profiles.

Even with all our techniques and experience, NASA's risk assessment still cannot place an absolute value on the risk for any particular mission. It is quite useful, however, for comparing the relative risk between different missions. It can be used to make a pretty good case that the mission to Hubble has less risk exposure than one to the ISS. Over half the contribution to total mission risk assessment comes from the launch phase, with the shuttle main engines the major culprit. The next largest contribution comes during reentry. A Hubble mission should fare slightly better during launch phase, with all other risks more or less comparable.

The shuttle orbiter is arguably the greatest flying machine ever developed. If management decisions measured up to the same standard, it would still have a perfect safety record. Two-thirds of those shuttle missions were launched into orbits comparable to the Hubble orbit. On 90 occasions since 1962, we have launched manned spacecraft into orbits that would not have been accessible to the ISS. Is Mr. O'Keefe now suggesting those 90 missions were not worth the risk?

Each one of those missions was not only worth the risk but they paved the way for everything we are now doing in space and, in the process, built the agency Mr. O'Keefe now heads.

Will an organization, unwilling to accept the risk of flying a truly great spacecraft in familiar Earth orbits ever be willing to accept the inherent risks of landing humans on the Moon, let alone sending them to Mars? Is NASA, today, a reflection of society's growing desire for a risk-free existence? With that attitude about risk, we would never have gotten to the Moon and become pre-eminent in human space flight. NASA was founded to explore the unknown, evaluate the risks versus gains, and then take calculated risks to move our society forward.

We should continue to improve the safety of our missions and our spacecraft, but we should not let failures paralyze our ability to move ahead. It is time that NASA management took a more pragmatic approach to the technical, political and the emotional issues of spaceflight. Yes, we lost a crew, but it wasn't the end of the world. If NASA insists on avoiding risk at all costs, it can sound the death knell of manned space activity. 

Whatever happened to the "right stuff?" Is it going out of style?