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Letter to NASA Administrator Griffin from Ames Federal Employee Union IFPTE local 30, AFL-CIO

Status Report From: International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. AFL-CIO
Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2005

September 14, 2005

Dear Administrator Griffin:

There have been moments in history when NASA management has made colossal errors in judgment that in the fullness of time proved catastrophic. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board rightly identified NASA management's culture of conveniently downplaying risk as a primary cause of the death of seven astronauts and the loss of Colombia.

Today, you are poised to implement a dangerously short-sighted decision.

The Agency is on the verge of eliminating most of its Life Science program just as the President has asked NASA to send human explorers deeper into space and thus farther into harm's way. The International Space Station (ISS) was built largely to perform Life Science and Biomedical research aimed at properly assessing and mitigating the risks and known adverse consequences to our astronauts of long-duration exposure to microgravity, radiation, high-CO2, and other risk factors of spaceflight. These efforts are aimed at ultimately enabling a safe, successful, manned, round-trip mission to Mars. Specialized facilities, including a centrifuge, were built to establish a rigorous, scientifically valid research and development (R&D) program on the ISS. Now, however, the entire ISS Life Science program is slated for cancellation. When we contacted a senior HQ manager a few weeks ago about this decision, we were told that the decision was a response to recommendations by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and by a Non-Advocate Review (NAR) panel during a zero-base review performed last autumn. We were further told that human health and performance has never been the cause of a spaceflight accident, so this is not deemed a major risk factor.

In response to these 9th floor HQ arguments, we make four simple points:

1. A manned Mars mission or extended lunar stay presents novel challenges for human safety and survival that require long-lead time Life Science R&D and thus must be addressed now if NASA is taking the President's Vision seriously;

2. The CMO is on the record supporting a broad range of Life Science research, including animal research and an ISS centrifuge, to assess and mitigate risk to astronaut health and safety;

3. The NAR panels did not recommend termination of the ISS Life Science program or centrifuge; and

4. Only two Shuttle flights ago, the same "it hasn't happened so far so it's a low risk" logic was used to argue that foam shedding was not a major risk factor.

The decision to kill NASA's Life Science program was not recommended by Space Life Science experts but rather by Dr. Eugene Trinh (a former astronaut and physicist), despite warnings from numerous Life Science experts inside and outside the Agency calling for the collection of hard data in support of health and performance risk assessment/mitigation as well as spacecraft, operations, and habitat design. NASA's Life Science technical staff, with their collective wisdom and specialized experience in Space Life Science, has been ignored and appears slated to be laid off. Management's decision to silence this uniquely knowledgeable voice may make the problem conveniently fall off the radar -- until a catastrophe occurs leaving a future Administrator to lament at some future memorial service. While it is wonderful that NASA has found astronaut-heroes willing to risk their lives for Space Exploration and for their country, their willingness to sacrifice and their fearlessness should not be abused nor should it dominate decision making at the Agency. Although it appears that a decision to accept an unknown level of risk of human health or performance failure may have been tacitly made, this view must be categorically rejected on ethical grounds alone. The good people of the United States of America will not tolerate the callous view that our astronauts are somehow expendable, even if the astronauts themselves are willing to accept the risk. Another catastrophic accident may kill not only astronauts, but NASA itself.

We know how to get rockets to the Moon and Mars right now; what we don't know is how to keep humans healthy and able to function safely and effectively during a long-duration exploration mission. Even for a short-duration return to the Moon, our limited Apollo experience does not provide a statistically valid basis for assessing the human performance risks (NASA flew many Shuttle missions before it was forced to admit the chilling 1:100 risk of catastrophic Shuttle failure). The President's Vision demands that the ISS be used as originally intended. The ISS should house a Life Science laboratory that acquires real numbers and ascertains real risks, while guiding the development of effective countermeasures including possibly intermittent centrifugation. If not, there is little reason to complete the ISS because, devoid of proper research facilities including a centrifuge, it will provide minimal value to the President's Vision and to the American people.

We are well aware of the serious budgetary constraints you face as you try to chart a course for NASA to implement the President's Vision. However, killing Life Science is simply the wrong decision because it will only recoup a trivial percentage of the total NASA budget. More importantly, a solution to the astronaut health and performance problem is on the critical path of the President's Vision. Failure to address this issue now will ultimately stymie mission success or create significant delays. Furthermore, it is dangerous and unrealistic to think that a Space Life Science R&D program could be easily restored from scratch in the future or that the critical challenges of keeping astronauts safe and healthy during long-duration missions can be solved by severely limited, uncontrolled human experiments performed on a skeleton crew without a centrifuge or other crucial facilities. The main point of the President's call to Exploration was to get NASA out of its rut of short-term, uninspired thinking and to force a grand commitment to real manned Exploration by ordering the journey to start now. For the last 30 years, Mars has been 30 years away. The decision to cancel ISS Life Science is a decision to put the Exploration Vision on hold and to keep Mars 30 years away indefinitely.

The Wall Street Journal (8/11/05) and the New York Times (8/14/05) both called for terminating the Shuttle program and scrapping ISS immediately. It is hard to argue against this position without a solid, scientifically sound research program on ISS. Instead, you argue in response (NYT 8/21/05) that NASA needs to keep its commitment to its foreign partners and to its workforce. Both of these reasons are uncompelling. As far as your commitment to foreign partners, the decision to kill the ISS centrifuge and associated Life Science research program already breaks a long standing promise to one of our key international partners. As far as your commitment to NASA's workforce, you announced last week that more than 10% of NASA's in-house technical employees risk lay-offs within the next year. Clearly, loyalty to our international partners and to NASA employees is not at the core of the decision process.

The bottom line is that killing the ISS Space Life Science program provides aid and comfort to those who argue that NASA should not spend the tens of billions of dollars currently slated for continued operation of an outdated and inherently dangerous Space Transportation System to allow completion of a largely useless yet expensive space station.

We urge that you reconsider your decision.

Respectfully,

Paul K. Davis, President
Lee Stone, Vice President for Legislative Affairs
Ames Federal Employee Union
IFPTE local 30, AFL-CIO

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