NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Beyond the Shuttle

By Keith Cowing
September 15, 2003
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NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Beyond the Shuttle

The Cost of Flying Again

On September 10th O’Keefe, when asked to describe what was needed to be done to the Shuttle in order to get it fit to fly again, he said that there was not a wholesale redesign of the Shuttle required, but that substantial work still needs to be done.

O’Keefe has been asked repeatedly – in congressional hearings and in press gatherings what the estimated cost of getting the shuttle ready to fly again is. He has shied away from placing a cost estimate on these efforts. Insight into what is being contemplated can be found in the CAIB report and NASA’s Return to Flight Implementation Plan.

Since NASA now uses full-cost accounting in describing things, costs may seem to be higher than what one would expect if they looked back to historical redesign efforts at NASA. The closest O’Keefe has come to naming a price is when one reporter asked if it could reach a billion dollars. He said he didn’t think that it would.

Escape From the Shuttle

Fixing existing problems within the current overall design of the Space Shuttle is one thing. Augmenting it with a variety of new capabilities is another. Some members of Congress are calling for a look into more dramatic solutions.

Rep. Ralph Hall made two requests for NASA to look into the option to putting a crew escape capability into the Shuttle fleet at hearings held on September 3rd and 10th. “We were wrong twice. We cannot be wrong again.” Hall said “We need to have a way for them to get a way out.” This was not the first time Hall had made such a request – in March 2003 he issued a press release calling for NASA to address this issue.

Hall’s March statement came on the heels of a rather heated exchange at a meeting of the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel a few days before wherein several former astronauts led by Sid Gutierrez advised that NASA needed to develop a “full envelope” escape capability for the current Shuttle fleet.

Columbia was equipped with ejection seats for the two-person crews who flew the first 4 flights. While the ejection seats remained inside Columbia after that, with larger crews beginning on STS-5, the seats were deactivated. The seats were later removed. No other orbiter ever had them installed.

After the Challenger accident, crews began to wear partial pressure suits with parachutes and the middeck escape system was added. This consists of explosive bolts on the side hatch and an extendable pole which allows the crew to bail out and not smack into the aft end of the orbiter. This escape mode only works if the orbiter is in a stable, horizontal flight attitude and affords no escape during powered vertical ascent.

According to an earlier article on this meeting: “O’Keefe’s take on a solution is to implement the Orbital Space Plane which he hopes will include capabilities that will allow it to be much safer than the current Shuttle fleet. Once the OSP is available, O’Keefe envisions reducing the Shuttle flight rate, perhaps relegating it to a heavy cargo lifting mode with a crew of 2 or so astronauts. This way earlier escape systems such as the ejection seats on the flight deck used during Columbia’s first 4 test flights could be used.

Sid Gutierrez took issue with O’Keefe on the OSP. “I have an old document written after the Challenger accident. It is amazing how well people outside the agency can predict what can happen.” According to Gutierrez, if NASA continues along the path it is pursuing at the same level of risk inherent in flying the Space Shuttle fleet and does so until 2020 “NASA will probably lose one – perhaps 2 more vehicles. We need to have our eyes wide open. I don’t think there is anyone here who thinks OSP will be operational in 10-12 years. What do we do in the mean time?”

When asked by Rep. Hall if the CAIB had looked into adding a crew escape module to the remaining Shuttle fleet, Adm. Gehman said that yes, the CAIB had looked into this but that they made no recommendations in this regard other than to suggest that NASA also ‘look into this.’

This sophisticated, ‘full-envelope’ option has been widely discounted – before and after the Columbia accident as being so expensive in terms of money and the weight penalty that it would seriously hamper the ability of the Shuttle to accomplish the tasks that remain before it – such as lofting ISS modules.

Back to Apollo?

One thing that has warmed some proponents of adding an escape system to the Shuttle fleet is the possible use of a capsule design (ala Apollo) for the Orbital Space Plane (i.e. “Orbital Space Transport”) an option many in the astronaut corps find inherently safer. Capsules have a proven track record. Moreover, in many people’s minds, they could be implemented much faster – and perhaps more cheaply than a sophisticated winged mini-shuttle such as is often envisioned with the OSP. Ongoing problems with the X-37 tend to support the notion that building a new winged vehicle will not be a simple task.

Where NASA will go in this regard (wings vs. capsule) remains unknown. On September 11th Sean O’Keefe said that he expects that an OSP RFP could be issued as early as December 2003 with a contract award could be made as early as Summer 2004. None of this hinges on any possible acceleration of the OSP since these preliminary steps for submitting a proposal and doing basic requirements definition take a set amount of time.

O’Keefe expressed confidence in the ability of the OSP project to proceed given that the OSP’s Level 1 Requirements “fit on one page” – the suggestion being that what the vehicle is to do is rather crisply defined – as opposed to the Shuttle system which seemingly offered something for everyone. Of course, as these simple requirements are interpreted during the design process, the paper becomes much more voluminous. According to O’Keefe the Level II requirements have also been recently completed.

In addition, a new set of “Human Rating Requirement and Guidelines for Space Flight Systems” have been baselined – something that took many years to be accomplished, according to O’Keefe. According to a press release, this document “contains requirements and guidelines for certifying the design of future agency space vehicles carrying humans.”

Since the September 11th press event I have learned that NASA will be using acquisition streamlining provisions recently enacted by Congress to expedite the RFP development process. NASA plans to bring interested parties together at NASA MSFC in November to hammer out an RFP based on the one page Level I requirements, the recently completed Level II requirements, and other associated human rating requirements. NASA hopes to have that RFP on the street in December 2003.


Ground the Shuttle

– Beyond the Shuttle

Separating People From Cargo

Farewell to Faster – Better – Cheaper

More Money Please




Speaking Out



Get With The Program

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.