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Almost half a year after the fiery destruction of a space shuttle orbiter over the skies of Texas, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (search) is apparently not far from releasing its report on that tragic event.

However, two significant revelations occurred this week that may have delayed the release by a month or so.

First, a test on Monday graphically demonstrated that foam from the external tank, when propelled at the velocities implied by the launch films, can do severe damage to the leading edge of an orbiter wing. This test was not just a "smoking gun," but almost literally a smoking hole that left little reasonable doubt of the cause of the loss of a quarter of our fleet, suspected almost since the day it happened.

Those who have followed my commentary on this subject over the past few months (starting with the day it happened), know that I've been unhappy with the coverage and response to it, which has largely focused on the loss of the astronauts, rather than the much more important loss of a quarter of our shuttle fleet. This absurdity has resulted in proposals by some, including some in Congress, that verge on the ridiculous, such as continuing to fly the vehicle, but doing so without crew.

Such a suggestion comes from a position of apparently profound ignorance as to the purpose of the shuttle--if it doesn't carry crew, there is little justification for flying it, given the high costs, because its lift capability is more cheaply satisfied by other vehicles, and there are insufficient requirements to return large payloads from orbit (its only truly unique capability) to justify a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per launch.

As long as we are going to continue to operate the space shuttle (search) at all, it makes sense to continue to fly astronauts on it, regardless of the risk level. I've always maintained that they're adults, and can decide for themselves what risks they're willing to take.

But given that position, I have to confess to being troubled by the most recent (and second) revelation, that only hit the wires yesterday. Apparently, almost three years ago, there was another breach of a left wing by hot plasma on entry, that time on the orbiter Atlantis (search). But what troubles me most is the fact that not only was this event not made public, but the astronauts themselves were not made aware of it, at the time or since, until recently.

Some, of course, will argue that the previous experience with a breach of the thermal protection system, in which the vehicle returned safely with only minor repairs necessary, indicated that it wasn't vehicle threatening, thus justifying their seeming complacence last January. I don't necessarily disagree with that, but the fact that it was not only not revealed to the public, but to the astronauts themselves, is a symptom of a severely paranoid and dysfunctional organization.

I'm a harsh critic of NASA (search) in general, but I've withheld criticism of the agency with regard to this particular incident, because I wanted to wait until all the facts were available, as they will be when the Gehman report comes out. But though I think that astronauts should be allowed to make their own assessment of whether or not their career justified the risk, their decision is based on their having the information necessary to make such an assessment, and to me this represents a breach not just of gases, but of trust.

Frustratingly, I don't expect much useful to come out of the report. Yes, it will delve into the NASA culture that caused this, and yes, it will have recommendations as to how to fix it, just as did the Rogers Commission (search) in the wake of the Challenger (search) loss some 17 years ago. And yes, NASA may even accept and incorporate some of those recommendations into its operations and organization.

In fact, as an employee of the shuttle contractor at the time, I remember the fallout of the Rogers Commission. It was a typical bureaucratic response, setting up "safety committees" and the encouragement of reporting of perceived "safety" violations of the shuttle system.

None of which, of course, addressed the real problem, which was the fundamental design and philosophy of the space shuttle, and indeed the manned space program itself.

Whatever recommendations Admiral Gehman has, they will never make the shuttle "safe." The safety of the shuttle was determined almost three decades ago, when budgetary constraints determined its final design, and any changes at this point are at best nibbling around the margins and, at worst, a public-relations ploy, just as the "escape pole" put in the system after the Challenger loss was. Anyone familiar with that system knows that it's a joke, and a bad one, that adds weight to the system and will be useful in only the most improbable of circumstances.

The reality that the American people must accept is that the shuttle will never be "safe." Many decisions have been made over the decades (over three now) since the decision to start the program itself that have ensured that such a state will be an impossibility, by any reasonable definition.

That doesn't mean that space travel itself can never be safe, in the conventional sense of the word (e.g., like flying on an airliner), but in order to make it so, it will be necessary to develop the industry in much the same way that the aviation industry developed--over years and decades, and by trying many different approaches, rather than a single, government-mandated one. It will require systems that fly hundreds and thousand of times, rather than a few a year.

In other words, it will require commercial systems, after commercial markets. That's all right, though, because such systems are being developed as we write and read this column.

Despite the two-and-a-half-year standown in the late 1980s, the shuttle would have been relatively safe to fly a week after the loss of the Challenger--the only requirement would have been to not fly it in freezing weather. What brought it down was an improbable set of circumstances, unlikely to be repeated.

Similarly, the Gehman commission (search) will come out with a set of recommendations that may slightly reduce the (improbable) likelihood of a repeat of the Columbia (search) loss. They will be expensive, and probably further reduce the flight rate while increasing costs, and increase safety or decrease the risk of vehicle loss very little, but they'll have satisfied the political imperative.

The important thing to understand is that ultimately, until we decide what we want to actually accomplish in space (as opposed to continuing to create "jobs" in the requisite congressional districts and pump money to the Russians), to make marginal improvements in the current ways of doing NASA's business-as-usual will be the equivalent of putting bandaids on a massively-hemmorrhaging wound, one that only fundamental changes in our nation's space policy can ultimately staunch.

Letters

I received a lot of appreciation for last week's column on overregulation of model rocketry.

Ray Chabot opines:

...I am one of those adult rocketry hobbyists being trampled on by federal thugs and don't care for it one bit. The uniquely American idea of liberty is to do as you please unless it directly harms another. But today's regulatory mantra is prior restraint and pandering to the ignorant. Ignorance of the law is no excuse in executing an illegal act and ignorance of reality no excuse in creating laws that overwhelmingly harm the innocent.

Forcing adults out of a truly American hobby such as rocketry only means that children will be forced out as well. There will be no mentoring and there will be no starting point.

Mark Simpson says:

...You have captured the essence of our dilemma. We law-abiding, Constitution-loving rocketeers are amazed at the level of scrutiny that we have been receiving by the BATF. You'd think that we were all a horde of anarchists or terrorists instead of a group of fathers and sons out to have a pleasant day launching rockets and enjoying each others' company. Since when did that become a crime?

M. Whitton is pessimistic:

I think you're going to be very disappointed. With the fact that there were three incidents of massive explosions which took several lives involving fire works you can kiss that freedom goodbye permanently. I suspect the explosions were deliberate to prove how dangerous and unsafe they are for the private citizen to have in their possession. In other words, we are too stupid, too unsafe and too unreliable to handle fireworks ever again. Just another small incremental erosion of our personal freedoms.

Finally, C. D. Tavares corrects me:

1) "Pursuit of happiness" is in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.

2) There's that tricky Ninth Amendment, which says that just because something doesn't get "screen credits" in the Constitution doesn't mean it isn't a right anyway.

Yes, I didn't mean to imply that the Constitution guarantees happiness, or its pursuit.

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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