July 02, 2005
Shuttle Fleet Should Be Replaced

Is anyone surprised at this result from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board study?

Though he believes NASA has taken adequate steps to resume space shuttle launches, the chief Columbia accident investigator said Friday he believes the aging spacecraft is so risky that it should be replaced as soon as possible.

"I don't think the American people and the Congress of the United States realize how dangerous this is," said Harold Gehman, the retired Navy admiral who led the 13-member board that determined the causes of the 2003 Columbia breakup.

"We didn't realize how dangerous it was when we started the investigation," Gehman said in a telephone news conference.

"It remains dangerous. We, the country, have got to replace this vehicle as soon as possible with a vehicle that is optimized to get humans into and out of low Earth orbit."

We know that the fleet is old. We've known that for quite some time now. Although many components are regularly replaced during preventative maintenance, the main technology on which the shuttles are based is fairly out of date. Of course, there is always trade off between "proven" technology and "cutting edge" technology.

One of the main ideas of the original shuttle program was to have a craft that was not a "one shot" deal. That program was successful; however, the needs of the program have expanded.

At 24 years old, NASA's space shuttle fleet has lost two of its five spacecraft. Challenger exploded at liftoff in 1986, claiming the lives of seven astronauts. The same number died in the Columbia tragedy.

Although, I believe it's important to note that neither of these accidents were a result of the age of the spacecraft in question.

Earlier this week, NASA's Return to Flight Task Group, a panel of 26 experts, ruled the space agency had failed to fully meet three of the 15 recommendations issued by the investigation board as conditions to resume shuttle launches.

Gehman offered his endorsement. "In my judgment, taken in total, (NASA) has faithfully and enthusiastically attempted to do every one (of the recommendations). The net of all they have done satisfied all of our requirements," he said.

The investigation board's greatest concern, he said, is that NASA could become complacent after a few successful missions and compromise safety to cut costs or meet promises made to the White House or Congress.

And there's the real fear. Will NASA be able to retain their resolve to maintain a safe fleet of spacecraft under continuing pressure from the White House to cut costs? Let's hope that Michael Griffin, known for cost cutting, will also be known for standing his ground when it comes to the safety of his fleet and their flight crews.

Posted by Elizabeth Benedetto on July 02, 2005 to Technology, science, and math | TrackBack