NASA, 14 dead astronauts later, worries private sector may neglect safety
Dec 16, 2011 – 1:11 PM ET | Last Updated: Dec 16, 2011 2:39 PM ET
Mike Nelson / AFP / Getty Images
Another triumph for NASA's safety culture: Debris from the space shuttle Columbia crashes into Texas farm.
But levels of CO2 gas were climbing — the Lunar Module’s filters were at their limit. There were other CO2 filters, but they were the wrong shape for the Lunar Module’s life support system. The astronauts’ lives literally hinged on finding a way to put square pegs into round holes. The men, working over the radio with their ground teams on Earth, had to frantically figure out how to jerry rig a strange assortment of plastic bags, hoses and socks that would keep the air breathable. I’m not sure if the words were spoken in real life, but the famous film adaptation has the Mission Controller, Gene Krantz (Ed Harris) shaking his head at the absurdity of it all, commenting, “Tell me this isn’t a government operation.”
A government operation, NASA has always been. It’s equipment has been built by contractors and subcontractors, of course, but under NASA’s tight control. The result has been some incredible achievements, some horrific tragedies, and some close calls. But what’s clear is that NASA’s safety record is, all told, not so hot — 1.5% of space shuttle flights ended very badly for the astronauts.
And that’s actually OK. They’re pushing the edge of human and scientific achievement, and the astronauts that sign up to explore space accept greater risk than most of us as a worthwhile sacrifice. But what wasn’t OK was how, in the case of both Challenger and Columbia, the destruction of their space craft and the deaths of all aboard — 14 astronauts — wasn’t an unavoidable consequence of pushing the envelope. NASA’s shoddy safety culture, and flaws in the space shuttle design, were factors in both disasters. (NASA also lost three astronauts in a 1967 fire, but I give them that one, since that was the first major wake up call that should have helped avoid the later disasters).
But that hasn’t stopped NASA from getting huffy and puffy that private sector designs might not meet its lofty safety standards — the same one NASA also seems to have trouble meeting. With the space shuttle fleet retired, NASA is currently providing relatively modest sums of money — mere hundreds of millions — to private companies that are designing private-sector space craft that NASA will then contract “routine” space flights into Earth’s orbit to, so the agency can instead focus on long-range exploration of the solar system. The private sector is still putting up the huge majority of the cash — something NASA had hoped to change by providing more funds and taking more control as the projects developed.
Glenn A. Walsh, Project Director,
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