NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Separating People From Cargo

By Keith Cowing
September 15, 2003
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NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Separating People From Cargo

The Space Shuttle was designed to be a tractor trailer truck, a temporary space station, a satellite serving an deployment platform, and a crew transportation system. It was also supposed to operate like a cargo airline with the ability for a quick servicing and payload integration/de-integration turn around between flights.

Once the vehicle started flying it became obvious that the compromises made so as to allow it to carry out all of these requirements, some naivete on the part of its designers, and some over-hyping by NASA itself, had raised expectations far beyond what the Space Shuttle was actually capable of doing.

Declaring the system “operational” after only 4 flights further promoted an image that simply was not accurate. This was not all that obvious at the time, but it quickly became obvious in hindsight.

To be certain, the Space Shuttle is a marvelous engineering accomplishment. However, like the Concorde, it is marvelous technology whose time has passed. Yet, unlike the Concorde, there is no alternative waiting in a hangar to take over its duties – nor will there be a complete replacement solution available for the better part of a decade.

One way to replace the shuttle is to parse out its current responsibilities and address them one at a time. Russia is currently handling crew and cargo transport using two related but separate systems. Although the Iran Non-Proliferation Act makes direct purchase of services impossible, (unless the President takes certain specified steps) Russian Soyuz and Progress systems can keep the ISS going indefinitely – so long as Russia is able to bear the financial burden.

Recent statements from NASA and Russia seem to suggest that, at least the next year or so, this is not going to be a problem. Europe’s Ariane Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is due to make flights beginning next year. Japan is also working on a similar cargo transport, the HTV.

Adm. Gehman said on September 3rd and 10th that the CAIB feels that “NASA needs to separate people from the cargo as soon as possible.” The thought being that the resultant humans- only transport (the OSP) could be tailor made to safely transport humans to and from space – cargo would be lofted using systems similarly tailored for that function.

The current Space Shuttle system serves both purposes. As has been highlighted by the notion of adding a crew escape module and the resultant decrease in cargo carrying capacity, balancing crew survivability and cargo capacity results in one or the other function being somewhat compromised.

Alas, one attempt to seek alternate ways to carry cargo and resupply the station, the so-called “Alternate Access” program has been in limbo since NASA sought to discontinue it- much to the annoyance of Rep. Rohrabacher. Alternate Access involves private sector solutions to the resupply of the ISS. NASA has apparently decided not to continue that program.

At both September House hearings Rohrabacher seemed to be exasperated that just as the CAIB recommends separating people (OSP) from cargo, that one obvious way of attempting to do this is being discontinued. NASA has been rather noncommittal about the Alt Access program, extending a contract period for a short amount of time, but making no firm commitment to continuing it beyond that point or expanding funding.


Ground the Shuttle

Beyond the Shuttle

– Separating People From Cargo

Farewell to Faster – Better – Cheaper

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