NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Ground the Shuttle

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Growing Skepticism

NASA was already looking at how to replace some or all of the shuttle's capability with a new "Orbital Space Plane" when Columbia was lost. Initial NASA plans were greeted with skepticism on Capitol Hill. NASA could not fully define the eventual cost of the OSP project - nor could NASA show how the OSP overlapped and then replaced the current Shuttle program. Indeed, NASA was looking to actually extend the operational life of the Shuttle - perhaps as far out as 2020.

The Columbia accident put a spotlight on the issue of what to do with the Shuttle and transformed plans to phase out the Shuttle into a more pressing and finite endpoint: the outright replacement of the Shuttle sooner than many had previously favored.

While the CAIB said that the Shuttle can be safely operated for another decade, many in Congress are impatient and would like to see the Shuttle replaced sooner rather than later. On September 2nd, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) posed the question "Are we throwing good money after bad? There is a fair feeling that this is an older technology, it is a complex technology. We may just be at a point that it is time to say, 'Scuttle the shuttle', and move on to the next technology".

Brownback is known to be formulating a request for the White House to look into a more pro-active, far-reaching national space policy and that part of this effort would be the replacement of the Shuttle fleet as soon as possible - as opposed to others who would like to see the Shuttle fleet flying for another decade or more - and after than, possibly as an unmanned heavy launch vehicle.

Extreme Solutions

A smaller crowd wants to see the Shuttle grounded - now. One vocal opponent of the Shuttle is Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) who initially made his anti-Shuttle views known in May 2003. If anything, Barton is more resolved in his commitment to keep the Shuttle on the ground. On September 10th he repeated his vow saying "I will do everything I can within the rules of this committee to prevent people flying in space shuttle orbiters."

Barton also asked that two recent editorials be entered into the Congressional record - one by Author Homer Hickam in the Wall Street Journal, the other by Robert Zubrin in Space News. Barton made one specific reference to Zubrin's op ed wherein Zubrin says "even if the Orbiter could be flown safely, it is clear that using a launch vehicle with a takeoff thrust matching that of a Saturn V to transport half a dozen people to the Space Station makes about as much sense as using an aircraft carrier to tow water skiers." When asked to comment on Zubrin's words O'Keefe dismissed them, saying simply "this is a wrong-headed view."

Later, in a second round of questions, Barton seemed to be only slightly repentant, assuring all that "I am a supporter of the U.S. space program - the manned space program. I am not anti-space or anti-NASA or anti-O'Keefe. But I am anti-using the Shuttle to put Americans at risk." He then went on to make a rather cogent observation "If we can go from John Glenn orbiting the Earth in February 1962 to Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon in July 1969 - that is seven years from having no technology and a vision - then we can surely come up with a space plane that puts American's up in space safely."

What Barton seems to have missed in his reference to the early days of human spaceflight is the fact that America endured one fatal Apollo spacecraft accident (Apollo 1) and another that came darn close to being fatal (Apollo 13) - yet in both instances the vehicle's flaws were fixed, and that spacecraft flew again.

While Barton's ardent opposition to flying the Shuttle is not shared by much of anyone else in Congress, there is a large and growing crowd in the House and Senate who think the time has come to replace the Shuttle. However, there is an alternative wherein Barton would not object to flying the Shuttle - if it is flown without humans on board.

Automate It

Barton then tried to pin O'Keefe down on two things: first, what it would it take, if given free reign (in terms of money) to build an Orbital Space Plane or capsule for transporting humans (not cargo) to replace the Shuttle, and second, what would it take to convert the Shuttle fleet to automated (unmanned) operation. O'Keefe did not have any answers for this during the hearing but promised to call Barton back "this afternoon".

At a press roundtable the next day, I asked O'Keefe if indeed NASA could launch, maneuver and then land the Shuttle without humans on Board. Another reporter added the question of whether it could also do rendezvous and docking without humans on board. O'Keefe said "Yes we can do that" but noted that some things needed to be done to the Shuttle orbiters to allow that to happen. He was not able to say when he' d have a definitive answer.

Of course, the Shuttle fleet has had the capability to launch and land automatically since its first flight. Having a crew on board has always been seen as a more reliable way to fly the vehicle and those capabilities have never been totally exercised. With the exception of the final moments before landing, ISS docking, and satellite servicing, much of what the Shuttle does has always been more or less automated.

There is a precedent for a Space Shuttle completing an entire mission without humans aboard. Alas, it was the one and only flight in 1988 of Russia's quasi-copy of the U.S. Shuttle named "Buran" which completed a short 2 orbit mission and landed dealing with a rather severe cross wind in the process.

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