by Gary North
In 1983, one of the great movies of all time was released: "The Right Stuff." It was the story of the Mercury Project, which preceded the Apollo Project that put men on the moon. The Mercury Project involved manned spacecraft orbiting the earth.
The movie was based on the best-selling book by Tom Wolfe, he of "Radical Chic" fame. It was the story of test pilots who made it to astronaut status. It was difficult to say why a few of them made the cut. The participants at the time called this X-quality "the right stuff."
We have been told, correctly, that flying in a space shuttle is risky. For men who are test pilots, however, it's a move toward greater safety. When you fly jet prototypes, the odds are that you're going to have an accident. When you fly a space shuttle, you're in charted vacuums.
There is a scene in the movie where one of the test pilot's wives is talking to another test pilot's wife. She says that when she attends a high school reunion, and hears about the boring lives of the wives of insurance salesmen, she wants to tell them that 25% of the men in her husband's occupation die on the job.
In the movie, there are scenes at a wooden frame tavern called Pancho's. On the wall are framed photos. One of the rookie pilots looks at the wall of photos and says, "I want to get up there. What do you have to do to get there?" The answer was short and sweet: "You have to get killed."
Film buffs: Pay attention to the guy sweeping the floor. It's Chuck Yeager, the greatest test pilot of them all, the man who was the first (officially, though apparently not in fact the first) to break the sound barrier.
SPAM IN THE CAN
One of the phrases that the movie's Yeager uses to describe the environment of an astronaut is "spam in the can." There was nothing anyone could do on take-off to make the rocket safer. Another phrase: "Riding a roman candle."
There is no doubt that the astronauts who ride the candle are brave people. But, on the whole, they have survived. The trio of astronauts who were incinerated on the ground on January 27, 1967 because of NASA's decision to fill the vehicle with pure oxygen — Grissom, White, and Chaffee — died ingloriously. They were the victims of a bonehead policy that got changed posthumously real fast. The next great disaster was the Challenger, two decades later. That disaster, as it turned out, was the result of another bonehead decision by NASA. There had been warnings that the O-rings would not meet specifications in the cold. But schedules are schedules. Bureaucrats honor them.
Now the Columbia has gone. Year ago, I saw "Hail, Columbia," the Imax movie about the vessel. It was an inspiring movie, as long as you didn't think about the billion-dollar cost per flight.
As to what brought the vehicle to its doom, I don't know. My bet is there will never be O-ring-type evidence. It's risky up there. But there's something else. . . .
USED HUDSONS IN THE SKY.
The shuttles are old. Here's how old. The New York Times (May 12, 2002) ran a story on the age of these vehicles: "For Old Parts, NASA Boldly Goes . . . on eBay." Here are some choice extracts.
NASA needs parts no one makes anymore.
So to keep the shuttles flying, the space agency has begun trolling the Internet — including Yahoo and eBay — to find replacement parts for electronic gear that would strike a home computer user as primitive.
Officials say the agency recently bought a load of outdated medical equipment so it could scavenge Intel 8086 chips — a variant of those chips powered I.B.M.'s first personal computer, in 1981.
When the first shuttle roared into space that year, the 8086 played a critical role, at the heart of diagnostic equipment that made sure the shuttle's twin booster rockets were safe for blastoff.
Today, more than two decades later, booster testing still uses 8086 chips, which are increasingly scarce. NASA plans to create a $20 million automated checking system, with all new hardware and software. In the meantime, it is hoarding 8086's so that a failed one does not ground the nation's fleet of aging spaceships.
The same is true of other obsolescent parts, dozens of them.
"It's like a scavenger hunt," said Jeff Carr, a spokesman for the United Space Alliance, the Houston company that runs the shuttle fleet. "It takes some degree of heroics." . . .
Recent acquisitions include outdated computer chips, circuit boards and eight-inch floppy-disk drives. "One missing piece of hardware can ruin our day," said Mike Renfroe, director of shuttle logistics planning for the United Space Alliance at the Kennedy Space Center.
Yes, that's what he said. "One missing piece of hardware can ruin our day."
Recently, Mr. Renfroe said, his team swept the Internet to find an obsolete circuit board used in testing the shuttle's master timing unit, which keeps the spaceships' computers in sync. None could be found. A promising lead turned false. Finally, a board was found. It cost $500.
"That's very inexpensive," Mr. Renfroe said. "To hire a design engineer for even one week would cost more than that."
Inexpensive? What a deal! Think about this. We are sending up crews in vehicles that are essentially obsolete. They fly in the standard orbit that involves a launch out of Cape Kennedy, which uses the rotation of the earth as a slingshot. It's the same old orbit. There is not much new to learn in that orbit. Why are we putting people's lives at risk? This is K-Mart space exploration. "Attention, shoppers. . . ."
Today, NASA is increasingly a victim of its own success. Civilian electronic markets now move so fast, and the shuttles are so old, that NASA and its contractors must scramble to find substitutes.
In the past, NASA procurement experts would go through old catalogs and call suppliers to try to find parts. Today, the hunt has become easier with Internet search engines and sites like eBay, which auctions nearly everything.
Mr. Carr of the United Space Alliance said that when the government bought complex systems like jet fighters, the contracts often had provisions that called for routine upgrades and improvements as a way to limit obsolescence. But the shuttles, with a design lifetime of a decade, never had that kind of built-in refurbishment plan.
The winged spaceships are to fly until 2012. But NASA is researching whether their retirement date can be pushed back to 2020.
For parts hunters, it could be a long haul. The shuttles, Mr. Renfroe of the United Space Alliance noted in an awed tone, "could go for 40 or 50 years."
It's a trade-off between vehicles that are wearing out, but which are familiar to the ground crews, vs. cutting-edge space vehicles that will crash far more often.
In the old days, the crash of a test plane and the death of a test pilot were secrets. There were no televised memorials. There still aren't. The public could not bear the emotional strain. They might demand that the test programs be made safer. But the whole idea of testing is to push the limits of the technology, or, in the phrase made famous by the movie, "push the edge of the envelope."
Dead test pilots are the price of military aviation.
The pilots know this. They are men with the right stuff.
Is the price worth it for NASA?
THE WRONG MISSIONS
The scientific experiments run on the shuttles are not cutting edge. There have been no major breakthroughs scientifically in 22 years of shuttle flights. Even the breakthrough consumer products of the Apollo era were based mostly on PR campaigns by companies that had developed the products earlier for other applications. I call this Tang technology. The space program was great for sales of Tang, one of the least palatable beverages of all time.
One of the women on board the Columbia was doing research on osteoporosis. What she intended to learn, based on a couple of weeks in zero gravity, is beyond my non-scientific powers of imagination. Maybe this: old people are less likely to break their hips in zero gravity.
The United States government spends hundreds of billions of dollars to keep this program alive, and the only time anyone hears about it is when a crew dies. They are all faceless heroes now. Nobody knows their names or their jobs until there is a disaster.
With Mercury and Apollo, the justification was two-fold: (1) the Russians got into space it first, and might get to the moon first (the PR issue); (2) there might be a military technology here — space-based weapons of mass destruction. The space missions were essentially military missions conducted by an agency outside regular military chain of command, where the competition for resources would have been won by the Air Force, with the Army and Navy digging in their heels. As the Strategic Air Command's Gen. Curtis LeMay is said to have told a colonel, following a presentation in which the colonel repeatedly referred to the Soviet Union as "the enemy": "We don't refer to the Russians as ‘the enemy.' They are ‘the adversary.' The enemy is the Navy." This may be apocryphal, but it's an Air Force story that always gets a laugh from anyone who knew about LeMay.
What is the mission of the space shuttles today?
That's obvious: to keep NASA's budget alive.
No matter what the original goal is for any bureaucracy, its long-term goal always becomes the survival of the organization. The March of Dimes was created to stamp out polio. After polio was stamped out, the organization switched to children's birth defects. Nobody walks away from a working mailing list and name identification among donors. Survival is the iron law of bureaucracy.
Now NASA will have to justify its mission before Congress. I think NASA will be successful. The disaster was large enough so that no Congressman will dare to ask the obvious: "Did these people die as heroes in the war against osteoporosis?" That question might be interpreted as a criticism of the Columbia's mission, as if it had been a terrible waste of resources, especially human resources. The Congressman who asks it will be immediately pilloried by the media as disrespectful of the honored dead.
If you want insight into the whole program, consider NASA's budget estimate for fiscal 2003. Here are some extracts from what is posted on the White House's web site. This is from the Office of Management and Budget.
The Administration is reviewing programs throughout the federal government to identify strong and weak performers. The budget seeks to redirect funds where appropriate from lesser performing programs to higher priority or more effective programs. Particularly, when low performing programs are in priority areas, deficiencies will be addressed through reforms to improve performance. The following table presents the ratings of selected programs for illustrative purposes. Some of these programs will be improved by proposals described in this chapter. . . .
Space Shuttle Safety Upgrades Ineffective
Need to address large cost overruns and schedule delays to improve shuttle safety through effective investments.
International Space Station Ineffective
Supports space-based biological and physical research. Effective technically, but need much better management controls to eliminate huge cost overruns. . . .
Earmarks Disrupt NASA's Science Activities
Many earmarks in NASA's budget have little to do with the agency's mission in scientific research, technology development, and exploration. For example, the Congress earmarked NASA's current budget to fund corporate jets, college dormitories, libraries, and museums. . . .
Then the OMB raised significant questions regarding the safety of the shuttle. In the last few days, we have heard the figure of a one-in-75 chance of a catastrophic failure. This was not NASA's estimate a couple of months ago.
The Space Shuttle is the only U.S. vehicle that can launch humans into space and return experiments from orbit. Since the Challenger tragedy, NASA has been improving the safety of the Space Shuttle, from an estimated risk of catastrophic failure during launch for each mission of one in 78 in 1986 to one in 556 now. This improvement took place even as staffing for the Space Shuttle has dropped significantly (see chart on Space Shuttle reliability). NASA continues to invest in improving Shuttle safety, but some of the planned investments are experiencing significant problems (see chart on cost overruns). For example, the electric auxiliary power unit was the highest priority safety upgrade last year, but delays, technical difficulties, decreasing safety benefits, and a tripling of its projected cost led NASA, with the support of its advisory committee, to cancel the project.
While the safety and schedule record of Shuttle operations has been very good, and costs have come down considerably in the last decade, the Shuttle remains a very expensive vehicle to operate. Moreover, in the last few years, Shuttle costs have been rising considerably, due to personnel costs, aging infrastructure, growing vehicle obsolescence, and a shrinking industrial base. A comparison of the cost to orbit for the Shuttle relative to other space launch systems is provided in the accompanying chart, which underscores the need to quickly develop a new system for space launch.
The program continues because the program is budgeted. The immortal words in "The Right Stuff," which became the guiding star of the astronauts, were these: "No bucks, no Buck Rogers."
The question is: What is Buck Rogers' mission today? If there is a compelling military case for the shuttle program, let NASA present it. Otherwise, the entire program should be seen as the triumph of bureaucracy: "No Buck Rogers, no bucks."
If NASA uses the tragedy as an opportunity to increase funding for shuttle safety, despite the fact that the shuttle program serves no military purpose and precious little scientific purpose, then we will know, once again, that the iron law of bureaucratic survival is unbreakable. In short, nothing succeeds like failure.
February 6, 2003
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