Press Release

Statement of Bryan O’Connor, Futron Corporation, before the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space: Shuttle Safety

By SpaceRef Editor
September 6, 2001
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Written Testimony of

Bryan D. O’Connor

Chairman, Committee on Space Shuttle Upgrades

National Research Council


Director, Engineering Division

Futron Corporation

For the

Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space

Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
United States Senate

September 6, 2001

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me here to
testify. My name is Bryan D. O’Connor. I was Chairman of the National Research Council’s
Committee on Space Shuttle Upgrades in 1998/99, and I hold a regular position as Director,
Engineering Division at Futron Corporation in Washington, DC. As you know, the National
Research Council (NRC) is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, National
Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, chartered by Congress in 1863 to advise
the government on matters of science and technology.

In May 1998, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) asked the
NRC to examine the agency’s plan for further upgrades to the space shuttle system. The NRC
was asked to assess NASA’s method for evaluating and selecting upgrades and to conduct a top-level
technical assessment of proposed upgrades. The committee finished its work in late 1998,
and published its report in early 1999. NASA responded to the report in March 1999. The full
report is available to the public through the National Academy Press. Attached to my written
statement is the report’s executive summary as well as NASA’s written response.

At the time of the committee’s assessment, NASA was looking ahead to a decision by the
end of the decade to either begin a phase out of the shuttle system, or to extend it’s operations
beyond 2012. With this major decision still ahead of them it was difficult for NASA to plan with
confidence on major upgrades, so their main efforts were being spent on those near term
improvements that would make sense no matter what the decision might be. Flight safety was, as
usual, the highest priority, and our committee looked at the upgrade selection process with that in
mind. With only a few minor exceptions, we found their process and decision support tools
consistent with safety and the other NASA priorities of launch schedule dependability,
supportability of the system’s aging components, and operations efficiency. Although we made no
specific recommendations as to implementation of the various upgrade options, we did offer 25
recommendations for improvements in the upgrade selection process, most of which were agreed
to and enacted by NASA.

Since the committee’s report was published, events have dictated that NASA look at
shuttle for the long term while difficult technology and market issues are worked out for its
eventual replacement. At the same time, fiscal challenges with NASA’s human spaceflight
programs require continued selectivity and prudence with shuttle upgrade choices. The latest risk
assessments for the shuttle system show that changes since the Challenger accident have
improved the risk posture of the vehicle by nearly an order of magnitude, but it still falls well short
of the overall safety level NASA demands of future human rated vehicles. Considering the
fundamental design and complexity of the shuttle, it is my own personal opinion that no amount
money for upgrades will get it to the levels of reliability and operational cost that NASA has stated
as its goals for the Space Launch Initiative (SLI). So, while the SLI works towards those worthy
goals, NASA should continue looking with care at those affordable improvements that keep the
shuttle flying safely in an environment of component obsolescence. Moreover, it is equally
important that they continue to pay close attention to the people aspects of such a complex
system. This unique human-crewed space launch vehicle with its high risk propulsion and
hydraulic control systems and extremely limited escape system will always need substantial hands
on care and preparation between flights. It requires nothing short of full attention – 100% of the
time – by the best 20,000 people NASA and its contractors can field.


Executive Summary-Upgrading the Space Shuttle

NASA Response to the NRC Report on Space Shuttle Upgrades

SpaceRef staff editor.