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NASA's Winter Curse

Late January has developed a reputation as a grim and fatal period in NASA's history.

Thirty-seven years ago this Tuesday, on Jan. 27, Apollo astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee died horribly, of asphyxiation and rapid incineration in an Apollo capsule on the Saturn launch pad. Destined for the moon, they never got off the ground in the vehicle that was to take them there.

The event caused a massive overhaul of the Apollo program, but NASA recovered, and two and a half years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and, per President Kennedy's audacious goal, returned safely to the earth.

Eighteen years ago today, on Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle orbiter Challenger was torn apart by aerodynamic forces as it separated from a collapsing fuel tank and its solid boosters. Just as their mission was beginning, seven astronauts fell to their deaths, from a great height, in what remained of the vehicle.

That accident resulted in two and a half, in fact almost three, years of delay until the shuttle flew again, as well as a supposed change in NASA management.

Apparently, there wasn't enough change, because now, in 2004, coming close on the heels of those two tragedies, NASA has another sad date to commemorate. This coming Sunday, Feb. 1, will be the first anniversary of the loss of the orbiter Columbia with its seven gallant crew.

How long it will be before shuttles fly again is now anybody's guess. The goal is late this year which, if it occurs, will be shorter than the hiatus from Challenger, but there's also a good chance that it will stretch into 2005.

Is there any reason, physical or psychological, for this close clustering of fateful anniversaries?

Probably not.

Certainly the Apollo I fire had nothing to do with the season--it occurred in a controlled environment that was indifferent to the weather outside.

Challenger would arguably not have occurred in the summer, since it was caused by an O-ring below rated temperature, but there are many weeks that it gets cold in central Florida, not just January's end.

If the prevailing theory about Columbia is correct, the damage to its thermal protection system was caused by falling foam, not ice, and even if it was ice, this can happen any time of year due to the cryogenic temperatures of the external tank. It could have occurred regardless of the date--it was purely bad luck. Or perhaps a better description, to be more in line with the findings of the Gehman Commission, is a string of luck running out on a flawed mindset.

It's just coincidence, but engineers--even NASA engineers--are human, and in any future manned spaceflight activities this time of year, one suspects that they'll have their fingers crossed, even if hidden in their pockets, for many years to come.

But in light of such a history, just how risk averse, how devoted to crew safety, should NASA be? Were our past decades' achievements in space worth the cost, in lives and treasure?

To some, the answer is obvious. No expense, no course of action, should be spared to prevent the deaths of astronauts, even if that means they don't fly at all. They should not risk their lives on any mission "needlessly." This is the argument often used by opponents of manned spaceflight in general.

Of course, such a position makes no sense when even cursorily examined. If that philosophy were applied to other endeavors in life, we'd remain in the caves today, or perhaps even in the trees. No minerals would be mined, nor autos driven (did you really need to go to the store for that ice cream?), no bridges or skyscrapers would be built, because sometimes, in these activities, people die. Any activity resulting in human progress entails risk.

And who is to decide what "needlessly" means? Certainly, if you have no interest in putting people into space (as, for instance, is the case with many scientists), then any manned spaceflight is needless. "No, no," they say. "We just mean that we shouldn't be doing things in space that can be done better with robots."

But that of course begs the meaning of the word "better."

Why don't we mine coal exclusively with robots? Why didn't we develop robots in the 1930s to build the Golden Gate Bridge, an undertaking that cost dozens of lives? In some cases we do, of course, but not to achieve a risk-free state (which isn't possible) so much as to save costs through increased productivity. But that's not the argument that people who say we shouldn't "risk lives" for "needless activities" seem to be making.

Let's take a concrete and topical example. NASA has effectively decided to deorbit the Hubble Space Telescope, an instrument that has opened up vast new vistas of the universe. Some have decried this decision as the first casualty of the president's new space initiative.

Of course, it's not that simple. Hubble was designed to use only the shuttle for servicing, but the shuttle is now focused on the ISS. We will have limited shuttle flights available, even after we return to flight, and we have international commitments to the latter, but not the former.

But the real issue is that, as a result of last year's tragedy, we have made a policy decision to never again send an orbiter into the wilderness--to an orbit from which the vehicle cannot be easily inspected and the crew easily rescued. This means effectively that all future shuttle flights must go to ISS, and barring some alternative means of saving it, Hubble will come down.

That's not the decision I would have made, if the only choices are using a shuttle or letting Hubble die. Yes, shuttle missions are expensive, but we're flying them anyway--we might as well do something that's of clear value with them. Yes, astronauts' lives will be at risk, but that's their decision to make, not pundits and scientists. Yes, another orbiter will be at risk, but we've already decided to phase out the program, and it actually could limp along on two through ISS completion, if necessary.

In any event, it's not really that risky. We went seventeen years without a loss of an orbiter. The probability that we'll lose another in the next two or three years is pretty low. We're may be playing Russian Roulette, but that's a misleading analogy for a gun with a hundred empty chambers and a short game.

On the other hand, the decision may prove a blessing in disguise, because there may in fact be other options to save Hubble, if NASA can expand their thinking and contemplate alternative and innovative approaches. This may be a golden opportunity to see if some new, non-government players can start to undertake risky but worthwhile ventures, free of the fear of Congressional inquisitions, and undaunted by deadly anniversaries.

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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