Space is Dangerous - Be Prepared

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SpaceX Mars base.

Despite their years of training, endless simulations of space flights, and intense study of past flights "we don't know for sure how things are going to work out," said former NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson, a veteran of four shuttle flights and one stint on the International Space Station said at the AIAA SPACE 2014 Forum in San Diego.

"We have to deal with problems in real time and get it done, we call it crisis management now, then it was contingencies." Culbertson was speaking as part of the "Unforeseen Events: Learning from the Untold Stories of Human Spaceflight Contingencies" panel.

The panel, composed of four former shuttle astronauts, was a great source of amusing stories about how things go wrong 'up there,' and how the astronauts react. From Gregory Johnson's depiction of "taking a 'tire iron like thing' and beating on the shuttle's frozen robotic arm to get it to unlock and extend," to the series of 2:00 a.m. phone calls, all seemingly involving fire, that Frank Culbertson fielded as head of the Shuttle-Mir Program, and with descriptions of tumbling satellites, difficult retrieval missions, exploding satellite parts, system failures, and changes in landing plans, it became apparent that successful missions depend on effective contingency planning.

The panelists credited training, endless simulations and discussions about anticipated problems during flights, communication skills, attending debriefings of past crews, and the 'can-do' NASA spirit, which Culbertson summed up saying "NASA is at its best when it has a contingency to deal with," as keys to overcoming problems.

In the Q&A that followed the panel the astronauts fielded a wide range of questions, from the expected ones about the quality of food on orbit, according to Culbertson you "can now have a steak on station, you just have to heat it up," to, if they would ever go back to space, to which Crippen quipped "only if I can drive," as well as the ubiquitous question on the movie Gravity. Johnson enjoyed it, Culbertson, who had seen the movie in IMAX 3-D, called it a "90 minute visual depiction of every nightmare I ever had about being in space. " Eventually these jovial questions gave way to more serious ones concerning a wide range issues.

The panel fielded questions about NASA's seemingly risk adverse culture and its possible effect on future exploration, with Crippen admitting that "NASA has become risk adverse." Brandenstein added "that if we would have had the risk culture of the late shuttle era at its beginning, we would have never have launched STS-1."

Culbertson pointed out that post Challenger "commercial missions, like the Intelsat retrieval mission that Brandenstein had described, became rare because of the risk mitigation urge." Crippen attempted to mitigate some of the criticism of the culture, noting that "flying beyond LEO is dangerous and no matter how hard you work, you can't get it perfect," giving at least some defense of risk aversion.

On the heels of the risk discussion, came a question on Mars exploration and the difficulties posed by radiation. Answering, Culbertson noted "going to Mars is dangerous, if something goes wrong, you can't turn around and go home." Crippen felt that the answer to the radiation danger is "an advanced propulsion system that could get us there fast," thus limiting the duration of exposure of the astronauts to the radiation. Culbertson noted that even absent a propulsion solution "They," NASA, "are fairly optimistic that they can mitigate the risk, much more so than they thought a few years, improving shielding, using pharmacological solutions to curtail damage, improving vehicle design - people are working it hard."

Moving away from the risk discussion, another question from the audience concerned the seeming loss of American focus on exploration goals as well as cooperation with international partners, and if it would take an event, like the success of China's planned Moon mission, to refocus America's priorities in space.

On the motivation question, Culbertson quipped "if I knew the answer to that, we'd be going to back to the Moon." Brandenstein's view was that he would like to see NASA set some goals, especially using a return to the Moon as a way to better prepare for a Mars mission. "Go to the moon first and you're gone three days and can develop the equipment and procedure on the trip back and forth." On actual cooperation with the Chinese, Crippen expressed his support: "I believe we ought to be approaching the Chinese to be a part of that as well, they have a space program, they are well proven. We did it with the Russians and it worked out well for us." Crippen also noted that cooperation and information sharing would "naturally be tempered by national security concerns."

The panel expressed positive thoughts about commercial flight and the Orion program. On commercial flight, Crippen said "I wish them well, when we started the COTS program Orbital and SpaceX showed commercial groups could do the work, and now we have Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada pushing it forward." On Orion, Culbertson urged getting on board with it, stating "this is our system to get to the Moon, it's important that it be done right and If NASA needs help we," referring to commercial firms, "should give it."

The final question dealt with the importance of flight testing for successful space missions, to which Culbertson deadpanned "the flight testing that Crip did on STS-1 helped me immensely," referring to Crippen's piloting of the initial space shuttle test, bringing the session to a humorous close.

By Duane Hyland, special to SpaceRef

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