Man the 'Lifeboats'

The International Space Station is currently constrained to carry only three crew members.

This is only partly because of any limits in terms of room, or life support--it's clearly capable of supporting more, as it did when, for example, Dennis Tito visited a year ago.

The main constraint on adding more crew is that there is only room for three people in the Russian Soyuz capsule that is always available to return crew to earth in an emergency. Any more than three, and we have a "Titanic" situation — not enough "lifeboats." There are many potential solutions to this problem, but for many reasons (few of which relate to actual program needs) NASA, and particularly the part of NASA in Houston, has fixated on the notion of simply building a larger "lifeboat." (I will continue to put the word "lifeboat" in quotes throughout, for reasons to be explained shortly.)

While there were some technical and cost issues with the concept, the real problem with the vehicle was not its specific design or management, but in the fundamental premise — the fact was that it was unnecessary, and worth far less than it would cost.

The very premise of the program was flawed. The idea was that if something went wrong on the space station, there had to be a way to evacuate the entire crew and return them immediately to earth. While I can sympathize with NASA officials who don't want to have to testify before Congress as to why station crew who didn't have a "lifeboat" died in orbit, the program's requirements are not a result of rational analysis — they're just to cover their keesters.

Let us stipulate that we want to minimize risk to astronauts (within reasonable cost — there is no affordable risk-free state this side of the grave). There are many ways to do this other than packing them all in a single vehicle and going home. There are, in fact, many better and less costly ways.

First of all, we have to assess how realistic is a scenario in which such an evacuation would be necessary. A mechanical failure, or cascading mechanical failures (in which one failure sets off another until things rage out of control), should be extremely unlikely in a system that cost tens of billions to design and many years to build. If that's a possibility, then rather than building "lifeboats," the designers should be fired now and the design altered. (Note, I don't believe that's the case). Similarly, an out-of-control fire would also constitute a design failure.

The only contingency that I can imagine that can't be designed against is a collision that took out major systems, most likely with something extraterrestrial (though slightly possible with a satellite in a different orbit). Or, of course, an actual extraterrestial attack...

But there's a good chance that such a catastrophic event would kill or incapacitate the crew anyway, allowing them no opportunity to man the "lifeboat."

And, of course, the same thing could happen at Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole, and there would be no way, in the austral winter, to do an immediate evacuation. We live with this risk there — why can't we do it in space?

One of the arguments trotted out is that it is needed as an ambulance in the event of a sick or injured crew member. But if that's the case, you would want a smaller vehicle to return just the crew member (and possibly one other to help), not the whole crew. This looks more like a rationale to do what they want to do anyway. The Soyuz can serve this function just as well, probably better (and certainly cheaper).

But even if we stipulate that we must be able to evacuate the station, why in a single vehicle? Why not just use a second Soyuz? (Other than, of course, that that wouldn't create jobs in Houston.)

With such an inflexible system, any station emergency, including a sick crew member, would require evacuation of the whole station, since by the stated philosophy, no one could be left aboard without the "lifeboat." That would mean abandoning the station, with all the risk to it that that entails, and the cost of redelivering the crew all the way back to it, when many of them may not have had to leave.

And why is it called a "lifeboat"? Why all the way to earth? If it were truly a lifeboat, it might not be objectionable. What they're proposing is much more than a lifeboat.

The Titanic's lifeboats were not designed to deliver passengers all the way to New York or back to Southhampton. They were designed to provide some mimimal measure of safety in the event of a disaster, until the passengers could be rescued. If there is no other place in orbit for station evacuees to go, or no way to rescue them from the earth, then that would be a problem better addressed with the funds intended for the crew rescue vehicle. It bespeaks a major deficiency in our current space infrastructure that needs to be addressed, and not with expensive and ineffective bandaids like a crew rescue vehicle.

For instance, there have been proposals to build private coorbital facilities, for better tourism amenities. Why not have NASA subsidize these (in a manner similar to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet), to help provide funding for them? That way, there would be redundant facilities on orbit, and no need to return crew all the way to earth for a (possibly) temporary emergency at the station. This would be a good way for NASA to demonstrate that it can work with (instead of against) actual commercial space activities, and establish a precedent for government serving as an anchor tenant of needed infrastructure provided by the private sector.

Fortunately, there is some indication that the administration is thinking along these lines. Administrator O'Keefe has stated that a single-purpose crew return vehicle is not a good idea and wants to expand it into something useful for purposes other than derriere upholstery.

In the meantime, just give the Russians money for a second Soyuz and docking port, if you really think that everyone is ever going to have to come all the way home at once.

I, for one, do not. 

But if they do, I'll live with a clean conscience — they got to go into space. Amundsen and Scott didn't demand (or get) a multi-billion dollar vehicle to rescue them.


Well, as I suspected, last week's column got a lot more email response. And not just because I dissed the NBA (though there were some amusing flames on that count). I've responded to the emails, for the most part, at my weblog here and here.

But I was surprised at many of the responses, in that they seemed to be responding to things that I didn't say. Let me reiterate what I didn't say. (Among an infinite number of other things, and in no particular order) I did not say that: 

— Kids shouldn't have high aspirations

—It doesn't require a lot of dedication and knowledge to be a NASA astronaut

—Competition is evil

—Science education isn't important

—Players, rather than owners and coaches, are the problem with the National Basketball Association

Despite the fact that I said none of these things, I got many emails lambasting me for saying them, as you'll see if you go to the links above.

Let me summarize what I actually did say.

I said that kids who wanted to become NBA players should recognize that their chances of doing so were small, and that they should develop other skills to diversify their life portfolio, even if the NBA was their dream.

I said that many children in the 1960s were lured into studying science and math on the false pretense that they'd have an opportunity to walk on Mars in the 1980s.

I said that no matter how hard children wanted to get into space, their chances of it were small because of failures of government policies, despite what they were told in school.

My recommendation was not that children shouldn't learn science and mathematics, or be the "best they could be," but that the government, which through its self-annointed role of educator in the public school system told children that there would be many opportunities for them, should have followed through with policies necessary to make that happen. It manifestly did not, and continues to indulge in policies for the elite, instead of the many.

I hope that now that the Cold War is over, such policies can change and create a space program that is more representative of the traditional American values of free enterprise and frontiers.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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