Status Report

Letter from Former Columbia Accident Investigation Board Members Regarding Crew Safety

By SpaceRef Editor
July 12, 2010
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Letter from Former Columbia Accident Investigation Board Members Regarding Crew Safety

July 12, 2010

The Honorable Barbara Mikulski
Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies
Senate Committee on Appropriations
144 Dirksen Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Mikulski:

As former board members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), we agree with your view that assuring crew safety is an essential element in the discussion of future U.S. crew transportation systems. As members of the CAIB, we have also noted with interest recent space policy discussions where our report has been cited. In particular, we have been somewhat surprised to learn that some people, both within and outside of the Congress, have interpreted the new White House strategy for space which gives a greater role to the commercial sector in providing crew transportation services to the International Space Station, as being not in line with the findings and recommendations of the CAIB report.

Our view is that NASA’s new direction can be a) just as safe, if not more safe, than government-controlled alternatives b) will achieve higher safety than that of the Space Shuttle, and c) is directly in line with the recommendations of the CAIB.

First, as we wrote in the report, “the overriding mission of the replacement system [for the Space Shuttle] is to move humans safely and reliably into and out of Earth orbit. To demand more would be to fall into the same trap as all previous, unsuccessful, efforts.” In contrast to Ares I and Orion, intended to both bring crews to the Space Station and to launch complex exploration missions, the commercial services under consideration as part of the President’s new plan are focused exclusively on the mission of safely transporting humans to low Earth orbit. These services may well use the extensively proven Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) such as Atlas V and Delta IV that have executed thirty-four successful launches in total to date. We anticipate that newer commercial vehicles such as Falcon 9 will also build up a strong history of cargocarrying launches over the next few years.

Second, the CAIB recommended that future launch systems should “separate crew from cargo” as much as possible. This statement is sometimes taken out of context. What it does mean is that human lives should not be risked on flights that can be performed without people; the new plan to procure separate crew and cargo transportation services clearly is consistent with the CAIB’s recommendation. But the recommendation does not disallow the use of a cargo launch system to also fly, on separate missions, astronaut flights. Indeed, the fact that Atlas V and Delta IV are flying satellites right now, including extremely high-value satellites, has helped to prove out their reliability. And the many satellite and cargo missions that Falcon 9 is planned to fly will also produce the same beneficial result.

Third, it has been suggested by some that only a NASA-led effort can provide the safety assurance required to commit to launching government astronauts into space. We must note that much of the CAIB report was an indictment of NASA’s safety culture, not a defense of its uniqueness. The report (p. 97) notes that “at NASA’s urging, the nation committed to build an amazing, if compromised, vehicle called the Space Shuttle. When the agency did this, it accepted the bargain to operate and maintain the vehicle in the safest possible way.” The report then adds, “The Board is not convinced that NASA has completely lived up to the bargain.” We commend the efforts of former Administrator Griffin and current Administrator Bolden and their associates to address the safety issues raised in the CAIB report and to do everything in their power to avoid the organizational failures of the past that led to two tragic Shuttle accidents. However, one might argue that the similarities in the organizational cause of both Challenger and Columbia suggest that it is very difficult for a single organization to develop, oversee and regulate such a complex human-rated spacecraft for an extended period of time. In any event, the operational experience with the Shuttle does not preclude others from successfully creating a human space flight capability – as has been demonstrated by the Russians and Chinese. We see no reason why a well-crafted NASA-industry partnership cannot match, or perhaps exceed, past performance in ensuring astronaut safety.

In conclusion, in our view the new space strategy fully meets the intent of the CAIB findings. The new strategy will task an array of companies, including both established industry stalwarts with decades of experience as well as newer service providers, to build simple spacecraft that are exclusively focused on the mission of sending crews to low Earth orbit. By using existing launch vehicles that are already accumulating extensive track records to launch these spacecraft, NASA will ensure that crews would not be risked on a vehicle that has not repeatedly demonstrated its safety and reliability.

Thank you for your consideration of this letter and our views on this matter. We would be glad to answer any questions that you or other members of Congress may have concerning the CAIB report and its application to today’s space policy issues.



Prof. G. Scott Hubbard
Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Stanford University
Former Director, NASA Ames Research Center
Member, Columbia Accident Investigation Board


Dr. John Logsdon
Professor Emeritus, George Washington University
Founder, Space Policy Institute
Member, Columbia Accident Investigation Board


Dr. Douglas Osheroff
Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, Stanford University
Co-Recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1996
Member, Columbia Accident Investigation Board


Dr. Steven Wallace
Aviation Safety Consultant
Former Director of the Office of Accident Investigation, Federal Aviation Administration
Member, Columbia Accident Investigation Board


Dr. Sheila Widnall
Institute Professor and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Massachusetts Institute
of Technology
Former Secretary of the Air Force
Member, Columbia Accident Investigation Board

cc: Chairman Jay Rockefeller, Chairman Bill Nelson

SpaceRef staff editor.