Shuttle Safety Concerns Aired Before Congress

By Keith Cowing
September 10, 2001
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At a time when NASA’s Space Station cost overruns continue to grow, and the agency’s attempts to develop the next generation of launch vehicles flounder, the Space Shuttle program is hitting its stride. Originally designed decades ago to fly a large number of missions in a short period of time, the Space Shuttle now finds itself more needed than ever – long after many thought it would (or should) be in a museum.

One of the keys to making the Shuttle perform for an extended service life is to increase its reliability and enhance its siamese twin, safety. Yet just as the Shuttle fleet is being redefined for an extended lifetime, the very thing it is being kept around to service, the Iinternational Space Station, seeks to drain the financial resources required for its own survival. It is against this backdrop that hearings on Space Shuttle safety upgrades were held on Capitol Hill last week.

The hearings were held by the Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and transportation. The hearings were chaired (at first) by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) took over later when Wyden had to leave for another appointment. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Sen. George Allen (R-VA) were also in attendance. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a vocal critic [1] [2]of NASA’s budget problems, was attending an Armed Services Committee hearing being held at the same time.

Sen. Wyden (D-OR) started by saying that this hearing concerned “a vital issue” and that the scheduling of the hearing was “timely as Congress debates budget priorities.” Wyden thanked Sen. Nelson who “has spoken with me about importance of this hearing – one that was scheduled at his request.”

Wyden continued, saying “Shuttle safety is not a luxury that is prioritized only when there is a budget surplus. This subcommittee is not going to allow anything to compromise Shuttle safety.” Wyden noted that these hearings had to be placed in a larger context saying “these questions to be addressed with respect to NASA’s financial management issues that dog the Shuttle and Space Station programs”. Specifically Wyden said that the committee would address “a $500 million shortfall in NASA Space Shuttle budget.”

Returning to the ISS, Wyden note that the ISS has “gone from an 8 person crew with a wide range of capabilities to a 3 person crew with limited capabilities.” In dealing with this problem, Wyden said “the Agency needs to focus on an integrated vision.”

In closing he noted to words of ASAP Chair Richard Blomberg says in his prepared statement:

“Safety is an intangible whose true value is only appreciated in its absence. The boundary between safe and unsafe operations can never be well defined. As a result, even the most well meaning managers may not know when they cross it. Nobody would deliberately jeopardize Space Shuttle safety. But, as equipment and facilities age and workforce experience is lost, the likelihood that the line will be inadvertently breached increases. The best way to prevent problems is to be proactive and continuous with risk reduction efforts.”

Sen. Allen (R-VA) opened by referring to the Space Shuttle as “a unique national asset. We need to take care of it. The Shuttle is example of the best that the U.S. has to offer as we bring our dreams into reality and reach for the stars.”

Allen continued: “The Shuttle been around for 20 years. Each launch represents coordinated effort of many systems and it is a surprise when it all goes right. NASA has made the Shuttle safer and more reliable – but we need to look at more efforts in this regard. I am disappointed that the budget for 2002 has a $500 million underfunding – one exacerbated by Space Station budget problems. We should all be concerned with budgetary problems – but we should not distract NASA from being ambitious though. Some programs make more sense than others. On others you wonder how NASA could be this far off on some estimates.”

Looking ahead, Allen said: “Space is considered one of the next growth areas in the economy. American is at the core of the business that could be done in space.” Moving on to local interest (e.g. Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia) Allen said “I am concerned about effects of cost overruns on other programs such as aeronautics. We should not let any one program become the focus of the agency. Aeronautics and aviation have been neglected at NASA [and money to fix other problems] should not be taken out of aeronautics.”

Focusing on ISS cost over runs, Allen referred to the recent GAO report saying that he was “disturbed that NASA has not been able to provide detailed cost estimates. Senators McCain and Hollings have spent a lot of time on this issue. We all look forward to more discussion on this matter with GAO and NASA. This is a very tough situation. There are serious budget shortfalls, work force issues, infrastrucural issues that need to be deal with.”

Sen. Nelson (R-FL) began by thanking Senate leadership for putting him on this Committee. Reading from prepared remarks he said “there is a lot at stake in this hearing. We want to have a robust human spaceflight program. But are we going to continue to have a successful manned space flight program?”

“We’re not talking about dry numbers and ledgers. We’re talking about the men and women who serve their country by exploring its frontiers. We’re talking about an exploration program that – since Alan Shepard lifted off aboard a Mercury rocket in 1961 – has provided perhaps built the most valuable research available to people anywhere. NASA technology touches the lives of Americans everyday, in many ways. So, as we move forward in this hearing, this is the importance of the funding question before us. This is the importance of making certain that we build, maintain and fly the safest vehicles possible. It is against this backdrop – and this history of our space program – that we delve into these very serious funding and safety questions.”

Nelson went on to say ” I fear that if we do not provide the Space Shuttle Program with the resources it needs for safety upgrades our country will pay a price that we cannot bear. This proposed budget abandons some of the most critical safety upgrades of our Shuttle fleet.

“The Shuttle evolved in the 1970’s and first flew in 1981. Now we have tough decisions to make about spending. Budget decisions should not come at the risk of astronaut’s lives. This budget fails to adequately protect these and future astronauts.”

“Most think that we will continue to fly the Shuttle until 2020 and perhaps a decade beyond that. But we are continuing to base our budgetary decisions on the long-lost premise that the Shuttle would be replaced in two years. This is not planning, this is not putting “safety first” – as NASA’s administrator continues to claim. This is putting the safety of our Shuttle fleet, the crews and cargo, as well as people on the ground supporting the Shuttle all at an unnecessarily high risk.”

“At a flight rate of six per year in the face of these severe budget constraints, NASA is abrogating its commitment to upgrade the Shuttle orbiters by canceling, deferring or “stretching-out” its previous upgrade plan. At the same time, the agency has yet to request any funds to make improvements to ground infrastructure, which literally is falling apart.”

“Safety improvements considered critical two years ago now are discretionary projects subject to available funding. All but one of the Shuttle’s pending safety upgrades have been targeted for cancellation or deferral. NASA has cancelled continued work on the Electric Auxiliary Power Unit, even though this upgrade was previously considered to be one of the highest safety priorities of the agency.”

“In the absence of a permanent leader for the agency, decisions about
NASA priorities are coming not from NASA – but from bean counters at the President’s budget office. We’ve got accountants making life and death technical decisions for our astronauts, instead of engineers and program managers, who have dedicated themselves to keeping the United States in the forefront of space exploration.”

“We have an opportunity to fix this problem. Before we consider the VA-HUD conference report, possibly next week, we can increase the budget to pay for some of the safety improvements that are so critical to our Shuttle program. I urge my colleagues to join me in seeking additional funding for this program. I have talked to Sen. Mikulski. They [Senate Appropriations Committee] have the ability to increase the budget to pay for safety improvements.”

“I urge all of my colleagues to seek the reprioritization in conference committee for this upgrade program. We are starving NASA’s space Shuttle budget if we do nothing thus greatly increasing the chance of a catastrophic cost. I wonder if the lessons of Challenger are fading?

Looking directly at the NASA representatives, Nelson said “I believe that you have had your hands tied. This is not partisan. It is not just this administration. I am talking about the direction that this has taken over the past decade. Again, you have had your hands tied over the years. We are dealing with things in the ‘now’.

Sen. Hutchinson (R-TX) then spoke saying that “the NASA budget , and the Senate Appropriations Committee final results, are a disaster. It is a disaster for the International Space Station. Without the International Space Station, there is no reason for the Space Shuttle. None of us wants to see Challenger happen again. But, at the same time, to short change the International Space Station for the scientific research capability would also be irresponsible.”

We have to work to secure adequate money for the International Space Station. We need to stop these unacceptable overruns, and then go forward making safety our priority. If we do otherwise, we will see NASA careen into a non-functioning agency. We also need aeronautics, and all the things that have come from the agency.”

“But to start to whittle away at the research vehicle and but keep all of the parts that would service the research vehicle is crazy. We need to have a plan that makes sense – one that keeps a solid research facility on the International Space Station but we also need to do upgrades and make the Shuttle safe. That is what I want to work for.”

Bill Readdy, (astronaut) Deputy Associate Administrator at NASA’s Office of Space Flight spoke next. Reading from a prepared statement, Readdy started by saying “First, I’d like to compliment fellow astronaut, Senator Bill Nelson, on his timely editorial in this week’s edition of Space News. As proud as we are of the twenty years of achievement and over one hundred flights in the Space Shuttle era, we must never allow our current successes to cause complacency to set in.”

“Today, just as in 1981, a safe and successful Space Shuttle launch is the only metric that the world uses to judge the quality of NASA’s human space flight program. Since Challenger, with your steadfast support we have continued our quest for improved Shuttle safety our “loss of vehicle” rating has gone from 1 in 78 to 1 in 483. While the majority of the general public might label this as great accomplishment, to us it is not sufficient. In the realm of human space flight 95%, or even 99% doesn’t get an “A” it gets an “F””

Putting safety ratings into a larger context Readdy said “Modern day fighters such as the F-22 fighter are on the order of 1 in 10,000 and a modern airliner such as the Boeing 777 has a safety level of 1 in 1 million. These statistics show us that, even though we have achieved significant improvements in the first generation of reusable human spaceflight, getting to and from space is still a very risky endeavor — we have a long way to go.”

Readdy went on to laud the performance of United Space Alliance (USA) but cautioned that “beginning in FY 2002, we have reached a point where simply accounting for inflation may eclipse future efficiencies and could foreclose our options to recapitalize our program. To be more specific, our Apollo-era infrastructure is aging, obsolescence issues are arising more frequently, many of our vendors are going out of business, and the operating costs for our contractors are going up.”

Readdy then went on to describe NASA’s Shuttle upgrade program. He noted that NASA established the Space Shuttle Program Development Office at JSC in 1997 “for the purpose of systematically identifying and prioritizing required safety upgrades that would maximize flight safety, mission success, and improve the end-to-end reliability of the total Space Shuttle system.”

Cataloging the progress of upgrades since 1997 Readdy said “since 1997, NASA has implemented many safety and performance upgrades. Super Lightweight External Tank, the new Block 2 SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) and the glass cockpit all come to mind. Because of improvements to the Space Shuttle main engines, we have reduced the risk of launch failure by 80 percent. We have increased launch probability to support the limited ISS launch windows and we’ve increased payload to orbit by eight tons.”

The progress towards the implementation of upgrades has encountered obstacles. According to Readdy “two years ago, Congress initiated the safety upgrades program through a “plus up” to the FY 00 NASA budget and then, subsequently, the OMB established a challenging goal of implementing all safety upgrades starting in 2005.” Citing the current and anticipated budget environment, Readdy said “it is now anticipated that development of safety upgrades will not be completed until 2005 with implementation into the fleet actually beginning in 2007.”

Readdy moved on to remind the Committee that there was more to Shuttle upgrades than improvements to the Shuttle vehicle itself. Noting that “the vehicle is only one part of the total integrated system” Readdy said “the ground facilities that support training, processing, launch and landing operations can be equally critical to mission success and the safety of the astronauts.”

Much of the infrastructure now in place to support the Shuttle program is of Apollo era vintage. Readdy said “the current Space Shuttle infrastructure revitalization where currently there are four major Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) projects. To date the Space Shuttle Program has had the ability to address maintenance of these projects only on an emergent, case-by-case basis.” Earlier in the hearing. Sen. Nelson had noted that the VAB had been damaged during a hurricane and that wire nets were in place inside the structure to keep falling cement debris from hitting people and equipment.

Readdy then moved on to the issue of the Shuttle’s human assets. He noted that in the mid-1990s, NASA underwent significant personnel downsizing. “At NASA Headquarters, the civil service work force went from 2,200 to 1,000. Within the Office of Space Flight, it went from 240 to 80. Within the Space Shuttle Program Office, it went down from 4,000 to 1,700. “

He added “in 1999 when NASA Centers were experiencing a shortage of people with critical skills in the Space Shuttle, ISS, and Advanced Space Transportation programs, NASA’s Office of Space Flight received permission to discontinue the downsizing and commence re-hiring. With respect to the Space Shuttle program, the hiring was focused on supporting increased flight rate for ISS and Space Shuttle upgrades program. Since January 2000, NASA Centers have been working to hire, train, and reassign personnel to support these efforts.”

Readdy closed by saying “I would like to reemphasize that safety, maintainability and obsolescence issues must not be allowed to threaten our nation’s only human-rated access to space. Delaying the implementation of key improvements could expose future flight crews to higher levels of risk for longer than is necessary.”

He added “we accept the fact that human space flight – the quest to explore and develop space – does not come without risks. We have accomplished much over the past decades. Our continued success in this undertaking depends on never overlooking the fact that, along with the astronauts aboard those Space Shuttles, a little piece of all of us flies on each and every mission.”

Mike McCulley, (former astronaut) Chief Operating Officer of the United Space Alliance (USA) then spoke. Reading from a prepared statement McCulley outlined USA’s support of NASA’s Space Shuttle operations. McCulley noted that USA had been able to meet NASA’s requirement for 8 missions in the past 11 months which equates to a flight rate of 9 missions per year. He noted that USA’s performance had been achieved while allowing a “continued increase in safety while cutting cost.”

McCulley went on to note that “over the past decade, the Space Shuttle Program has done an outstanding job of continuing safe operations while reducing cost. Under the Space Flight Operations Contract (SFOC), USA and NASA have saved the American taxpayers $1.2 billion to date. USA has under-run the SFOC contract every year, and POP (Program Operating Plan) submissions to NASA reflect under-runs in fiscal years 2001 and 2002.”

Noting that the USA contract is predominantly a “people contract”, McCulley said that has “done far too many layoffs in the past few years. As you may recall, at the time NASA signed the USA SFOC contract, the agency expected to phase in a Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) to ultimately replace the Shuttle
fleet in 2004. As a result, NASA’s management plans for Shuttle out-year budgets were greatly reduced, and plans for orbiter fleet and ground infrastructure improvements were very limited. Now, the Shuttle program is being asked to fly for many more years, yet the current and out-year budget profiles remain unchanged.”

Regarding safety upgrades, McCulley said “we have been working to reduce the 1 in 483 risk down to 1 in 1000. This would represent a 50% reduction in risk. Now those upgrades are going to be delayed due to budgets – not technical capability.” With regard to ground facilities McCulley admitted that “we have to take care of these things. We have not done a good enough job.”

Returning to workforce issues, McCulley said that the USA workforce “is at the lowest level ever – yet accomplished a 9 flight per year flight rate with near perfect performance in people and hardware. Morale is high, and our workforce is being increased.”

McCulley concluded by saying “I am more pessimistic today than ever before. As I look at the budget for the next 5 or 6 years I am concerned. Even with the prospect of a lower flight rate, the demands on the workforce are increasing due to aging hardware, upgrades implementation, and normal lifecycle
modifications. We need to be ever watchful that this very talented and dedicated workforce is protected and augmented when necessary. The experience of our
management, engineering, and technician personnel will keep an aging Shuttle program at its highest level of efficiency. The dedication and skill of this workforce is the cornerstone of Shuttle safety.”

Richard Blomberg, Chair of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) spoke next. Reading from a prepared statement he said bluntly that the Space Shuttle cannot continue to operate at an acceptable level risk unless steps are made now.” He said that ASAP ” believes that four areas are critical to the long-term safe operation of the Space Shuttle:

  • Flight system improvements – Reducing the risks associated with the servicing and use of flight hardware and compensating for obsolescence and wear. Safety should be a foremost concern for everybody. Now is not the time for significant cutbacks.

  • Renewal of the ground infrastructure – Ensuring that the facilities, ground support equipment and test and checkout gear used with the Space Shuttle are fully capable and supportive of operations at the lowest possible risk. Maintenance has been deferred and there is a large back log of work that needs to be done. An aging infrastructure eventually becomes unreliable.

  • Logistics – Providing for the timely availability of properly functioning components throughout the projected life of the Space Shuttle. These vehicles experience wear and tear as they are used. They also face obsolescence, suppliers change products or go out of business. NASA needs to adopt a realistic program for components and its supplier base with some important acquisitions to be made soon for some safety critical components.

  • Workforce – Providing for the continuing availability of critical skills and the retention of experienced personnel. NASA is losing experienced workers to retirement. Downsizing has limited the number of qualified successors. Planning must be in place to develop future talented workforce. To fly safely to 2002 and beyond the Space Shuttle program needs improvements. The longer we wait the more it will cost and the greater the risk will be.

Blomberg closed by repeating the same quote Sen. Nelson had cited:

“Safety is an intangible whose true value is only appreciated in its absence. The boundary between safe and unsafe operations can never be well defined. As a result, even the most well meaning managers may not know when they cross it.”

Allen Li from the General Accounting Office then spoke. Reading from his prepared statement Li said “Two years ago space Shuttle program was at a critical juncture: its workforce had declined significantly since 1995, its flight rate was to double over that of recent years to support the assembly of the International Space Station, and costly safety upgrades were planned to enhance the space Shuttle’s safe operation until at least 2012.

Li said that NASA has been making progress. “NASA’s current budget request projects an increase of more than 200 full-time equivalent staff 5 for the Shuttle program through fiscal year 2002-both new hires and staff transfers. According to what NASA told us, new staff are being assigned to areas critical to Shuttle safety. NASA has outlined a strategy to retain its work force.”

“NASA has made some progress but has only partially addressed the challenges we identified last year. Specifically, NASA has started to define and
develop some specific Shuttle upgrades. For example, requirements for the cockpit avionics upgrade have been defined. Also, Phase I of the main engine advanced health monitoring system is in development, and Friction Stir Welding on the external tank is being implemented.”

However, according to Li “NASA’s ability to implement safety upgrades is uncertain.” While “staffing for the upgrade program is sufficient according to NASA, some projects have encountered schedule and budget problems.” He said. Moreover, one critical item, the crew escape system, is not being worked at this time.

According to Li: “compounding the challenges that NASA is facing in making its upgrades is the uncertainty surrounding its Shuttle program. NASA is attempting to develop alternatives to the Space Shuttle, but it is not yet clear what these alternatives will be. We recently testified before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics on the agency’s Space Launch Initiative. This is a risk reduction effort aimed at enabling NASA and industry to make a decision in the 2006.”

This is not without risk according to Li “The X-33 program demonstrated that this is no easy task. Since the exact timeframe for Shuttle replacement is not clear, NASA needs to make decisions about Shuttle upgrades with this as an uncertainty.”

Bryan O’Connor (former astronaut) from Futron (and Chairman of the NRC Committee on Space Shuttle Upgrades) spoke next. Reading from his prepared remarks (which included an executive summary of the NRC report.

O’Connor provide a short retrospective on the Shuttle upgrades program. The program began in 1997 NASA when decided to put $100 million per year to do relatively minor safety upgrades as well as perform studies for major upgrades. Major upgrades had to wait until the decision regarding the follow-on RLV replacement of the Space Shuttle by 2012 was decided upon.

According to O’Connor “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.”

The Shuttle does not meet the safety requirements set by the SLI program – nor does it (or will it) meet those required of military transports “No amount of money will get you there’ O’Connor said “But these are still worthy goals worth striving for.” he said.

He closed by saying “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.”


Sen. Wyden started the questions off by citing page 4 of the recent GAO report [NASA: International Space Station and Shuttle Support Cost Limits, GAO-01-1000R] on NASA tracking of ISS costs. He said “NASA cannot tell GAO what actually been spent on ISS thus far. Are we reading that report correctly?”

Allen Li responded that this is a “complicated issue. – Congress asked that there be no excedence of cap [on ISS development and Shuttle support of ISS development]. We found at the subsystem and systems level – and at the module level – that NASA could not identify what was spent on those specific items. NASA disagrees with our assessment however NASA does not track actual ISS expenses.”
Bill Readdy replied that he was “prepared to speak on the Shuttle program” and that NASA’s Space Shuttle program “was on track to within a tenth of a percent on what we should be spending.”

Wyden replied that he wanted a written response from NASA on this question. Getting back to the Shuttle he said ” I think that the issue will come down to looking at the safety gains being balanced against cost considerations. How would each of you strike that balance?”

Bill Readdy replied that it took “10 years and $40 billion to develop the Space Shuttle. It is complicated because it has to do many things. It is the embodiment of America’s human space flight capability. It also has multiple roles in the ISS program providing both assembly and logistics.

Mike McCulley said “between 1990-1991 NASA had a $5 billion Shuttle budget. Now they have a $3 billion budget. “

Richard Blomberg said : there is a semantic issue with the word “upgrades”. People often think that this means “to improve”. Yet, there is more. If we do nothing to this vehicle, safety will slip as things continue to age. We need to find a way to keep pace with obsolescence and then improve safety.”

Allen LI said that NASA “needs to set priorities. It needs to be able to establish a risk level. NASA has a mixture of safety and performance upgrades in line for these various systems. NASA needs to look at the length of time that they are exposed to risk. They need to know when a follow-on vehicle comes online. That affects what priorities are done. That is if NASA replaces it later then it would make more investments. If it is to be replace din the near term, then it might do less investment. Li likened it to decision NASA faces as being similar to those he has to make with regard to the upkeep of his 1986 Volvo – decisions that are dependent upon how long he is going to keep it and when he will replace it.

Bryan O’Connor noted that the Space Shuttle is “well below the safety levels accepted for military – or commercial vehicles.” The lack of an escape system being one of the more glaring examples. “We fly operations with what I call a R&D vehicle. We need to spend money to keep risk where it is right now.” In talking about future humans pace flight capabilities, O’Connor said ” the next time we need to do this right as we replace this vehicle and get one that is truly operational.” O’Connor then noted the amount of actual high performance (high mach) time that the Shuttle fleet has in the atmosphere as being at a total of around 120 hours. He then compared this the thousands of hours that went into F-22 development.

Sen. Wyden then said “I am very sympathetic to this issue and the need for more funds to be dedicated the issue. I urge NASA to set some priorities. These are critical at a time when its budget is strapped in a very dramatic fashion. The budget choices will be very tough this year but I am prepared to go to Sen. Mikulski and work for increased funds for NASA.”

Sen. Nelson then spoke noting that “the quandary we find ourselves in is the fact that NASA has mismanaged the ISS program and as a result you have huge cost overruns. But then, when confronted with what we are going to do in the future, it appears that [some] forces would want to punish NASA for its misdeeds by cutting back on other parts of the program. I think that testimony [given today] demonstrates that we do so at the risk of life – and indeed at the risk of the entire human space flight program.” Nelson then said that he had debated with Sen. McCain when McCain went after NASA last year on ISS cost overruns. Nelson said “we have to get beyond that because we have a lot at stake.”

Sen. Allen asked Mike McCully to comment on the $218 million shortfall in FY 2002 Shuttle budget – specifically on the $54 million that is due to contractor rate increases. McCulley replied that USA’s costs represent about half of the $218 million shortfall. He said that his costs at USA assumed a 4% annual increase in costs noting that “two thirds of our costs are salaries and benefits.” Allen then asked if these costs increases were known in advance. McCulley said that they were. Allen then replied that this should have been figured into the budget up front – and reported that way. McCulley did not disagree.

Allen then asked if there was any commercial interest in operating the Shuttle orbiters. McCulley replied in a rather vague way citing non-ISS missions such as the HST servicing mission and a Shuttle science emission using Space Shuttle Columbia. Bill Readdy added that the Shuttle science mission would
Focus on human biology and microgravity research that “is not quite ready for the Space Station yet.”

Allen asked again about commercial opportunities. Readdy replied in general terms that NASA flies “commercial payloads on typical mission. We are making more of an initiative. Spacehab has a set-aside for percentage of payload space on each mission in every one of their lab modules. We also have a preliminary mission for satellite salvage. We also did a Space Radar Mapping mission for the Department of Defense. We also launched a lot of commercial satellites pre-Challenger.” McCulley added that USA had been working with DoD on some of their payloads.

Allen then asked Bryan O’Connor if NASA has prioritized its Shuttle upgrades. O’Connor replied that his NRC committee made 25 recommendations – “only one was not endorsed by NASA.” O’Connor then focused on one recommendation to make a point about the way different upgrades are considered. “We asked the to put more effort into reducing the threat f damage due to orbital debris. The upgrades (and commensurate risk reduction) done to the Space Shuttle Main engines (SSME) cost around $1 billion. Looking at the cost of moving some thermal radiator lines inside the Shuttle’s leading edge (on its wings)such that a debris hit would not take out that system provided the same numerical risk reduction that the engine upgrades did for the entire fleet – but at a cost of only $60 million.”

O’Connor suggested that NASA needs to be looking more closely at how to get the same numerical risk reduction for a given amount of money and the various ways this can be achieved. He also noted that some upgrades, while desirable weren’t yet feasible. While proposed electric APUs (Auxiliary Power Units which provide power to move aerodynamic and propulsion systems on the Shuttle) would negate the use of dangerous fuels, the technology required to pack battery storage into the required small volume is not yet feasible.

NASA will have to either help push the state of battery technology along or wait for it to advance elsewhere before this upgrade can be realized. That being the case O’Connor suggested that some of the money allotted for electric APU’s could be use to support technology research in other upgrade areas.

Editor’s note: at this point, all of the senators on the subcommittee had left for other appointments – all except Bill Nelson. What followed was rather impressive. Nelson put up a big chart outlining Shuttle upgrades and the numerical path to risk reduction and then proceeded to engage in a discussion with three astronauts about how the Shuttle worked. His tone was friendly and confident. At times, Nelson even explained NASA’s charts to NASA. When a break for voting caused the hearing to be in recess, Nelson returned and resumed the discussion without pause not unlike a college professor resuming class after a fire alarm had gone off.

Nelson spoke with out referring to notes and evidenced a clear understanding of the issues involved. While a Congressman from Florida, Nelson flew on a Shuttle mission. Ironically, his mission landed a few days before Challenger exploded and almost experienced the same problem that doomed Challenger.

Over the years, I have adopted a rather consistent editorial stance that Shuttle rides such as Nelsons’ (and that of Sen. Jake Garn, Sen. John Glenn and assorted sheiks, retired Russian cosmonauts, and other guests) smack of being high-priced junkets. I also found it rather cynical of Nelson to have objected to Dennis Tito’s flight given his own non-professional status. That not withstanding, I was very impressed by Nelson’s performance at this hearing. This was more than just doing one’s homework or having sharp staffers whispering in one’s ear.

Back in the 1980’s Nelson had cited the rationale for his flight as being needed to enhance his ability to perform Congressional oversight on the Shuttle program. While I am certain Nelson could have developed his impressive technical background without flying, I do have to say that the experience gained from training and flight may well provide some clear (and important) benefit to the discussion of this significant issue a decade and a half later. Regardless of how he gained this expertise, he clearly knows how to use it to good effect.

Nelson began his questions by asking if the FY 2002 budget is sufficient to break even at a 6 flight/year rate. Bill Readdy replied that “inflation continues to erode our purchasing power” adding that “it will be increasingly hard to get further efficiencies.”

One example of needed Shuttle upgrades Readdy focused on was they way in which information is relayed to the crew – especially in contingency situations. He held up standard flight book, noting that this was the same thing NASA used 15 years ago when Nelson flew. Readdy said “right now we use paper and Velcro tabs to fly on a Mach 25 rocketship.” Richard Blomberg added ” this vehicle is the fastest thing humans fly yet it has the lowest situational awareness of anything I have seen.”

Nelson moved to the issue of electric APUs. He noted that this switch would require the development of new battery technology but that it offered the advantage of avoiding the use of potentially toxic and explosive fuels. Readdy replied that there is 15% risk of overall catastrophic failure associated with the current hydrazine-fueled APUs.

Mike McCulley added that switching to electric APUs also presents a chance to reduce the risk associated in ground processing procedures and personnel. To this, Readdy noted ” we should never build another human space flight vehicle that uses hypergolics (fuels that ignite on contact). Blomberg echoed this and added that the need to replace the current APUs has another rationale: the current units cannot last through the projected life of the Shuttle service life and will need to be replaced. The parts are going to become obsolescent soon making their repair difficult and expensive to do.

Nelson then asked McCulley to describe an incident that serves to underline the need for APU replacement. McCulley described an incident several years back in the OPF – Orbiter Processing Facility at NSA KSC. Shuttle Endeavor was in OPF Bay 1. Work was being done on the OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System) Pods at the aft end of the Shuttle Technicians had opened a line they thought had been cleared of fluid. It wasn’t. they were greeted by a fire “right in their face”. This incident was captured on videotape.

McCulley spoke of the presence of mind the three technicians had as they dealt with the fire. Instead of running away “and no one would have blamed them if they did” said McCulley. “One guy used his gloved hands to beat out fire. Another guy got a water bucket. the third guy got on the phone. They managed to put the fire out in 20 seconds. There was minimal damage tot he Shuttle and none to the technicians. Indeed, the bulk of the damage was due to water.”

Readdy then added “the Shuttle vehicle itself is not characterizes as “operational”. Yet the way the program is run is indeed “operational” in the maturity of the ability to project costs.”

When asked if there was any way for further cuts to be made, McCulley noted that most costs were associated with people and that he did not see anyway to cut anymore people. Blomberg said that he “cannot envision how to cut any further. This is an old vehicle. NASA needs to keep pace with maintenance such that the vehicle can at least work as it was when it was new. NASA should also seek to add increased safety. This current budget does not allow that to be done.”

Sen. Nelson then raised the issue of deteriorating infrastructure noting that a hurricane almost hit KSC dead center several years back. Some damage was one tot he VAB as a result of its nearby passage. He noted that the ” continuing assault of corrosion (from salty ocean air) and other things since the Apollo days have to be updated.”

Mike McCulley noted that other centers such as JSC also have problems. “simulators, trainers, etc also require upgrades or repair. Stennis has fuel propellant barges that need to be refurbished – this has been put off. MSFC has areas as well. At KSC the most visible is the VAB. These are things built a long time ago. We have done required maintenance but we need to do more.” Richard Blomberg added that the data cables that run out to the launch pads are in terrible state of repair and need to be replaced.

Nelson then said that he wanted the witnesses to go on the record as to how all of this would affect the Space Station program. Bill Readdy said “without the Space Shuttle to provide logistics, repair, resupply ,and crew exchange would force more reliance upon Russia for Progress and Soyuz spacecraft.”

Allen Li noted that the Space Shuttle is important for ISS servicing. The only alternatives to the Shuttle fleet that are available require more reliance upon Russia. Li added that the Shuttle has helped out on ISS when air conditioning problems arose on the ISS. Shuttles have also been used to do orbit raising did reboosts.

While Soyuz and Progress spacecraft can deliver things to the ISS, and Soyuz return some things to Earth, that capacity is limited. Readdy noted that one of the Shuttle’s greatest assets is the ability to take tons of items to and from the ISS. Among the items returned from the ISS are what Readdy called the “research harvest” of the ISS.
Sen. Nelson then summarized ” to put this in investment terms – the ISS investment depends on a safe and reliable space Shuttle. “Yessir” replied Readdy.

Nelson then moved to SLI – the Space Launch Initiative, asking the witnesses to describe how SLI is supposed to help develop the follow on to the Space Shuttle. Readdy replied “As you upgrade the Shuttle things are being developed that can be fed into the SLI program.” We support the SLI. The goal is to provide the next generation launch vehicle. The Shuttle‘s 20 years of service can serve as a pathfinder for many technologies under development.”

“Readdy went on to say “vehicle processing lessons are also important. This is only 10% of what happens in a reusable spacecraft’s lifetime. 90% is spent being reprocessed. This Shuttle program was such a cutting edge endeavor in the first place that maintainability was done after the fact. This maintainability needs to be engineered into the next RLV design at its onset.” He added that the Boeing 777 “benefited from decades of work done on precursors. We need an analog to such precursors as we develop the next generation of human space transportation.”

Allen Li said “this (SLI program) is the latest incarnation of what NASA has been trying to do for a long time. There is a need to reduce the cost to orbit from its current $10,000 per pound to around $1,000 per pound. The thought being that this dramatic cost drop would serve as an incentive. This was the motivation for cooperative agreement with Lockheed Martin and the X-33 program. NASA was to put in $900 million in and Lockheed Martin was to put in $200 million. This was not successful. One of the foundations that made them feel optimistic was that industry would reap some benefits from this and that commercial sector would take advantage of the opportunity. With the demise of things such as Iridium, industry was not interested in providing the money this project would have required.

Readdy noted that the Boeing 777 “took $12 billion and 6 years to develop. The Shuttle took $40 billion and a decade to develop. Somewhere in between these two examples is probably what it will take to develop the next generation replacement for the Space Shuttle.”

Sen. Nelson then sought to close down the hearings. He said ” If you add in the money spent on the ISS – and the ability to use that asset – and then realize that a follow-on launcher is years down the road – you need to provide reliable access to the ISS. We best get about the process of making this the safest one for the future. What has already been done with a declining budget – 40% less money – amidst a declining NASA budget overall – is miraculous. But that is not going to continue.

Nelson noted that while taking a break from the hearing to cast a vote he saw Sen. Bond and Sen. McCain on the Senate floor. “I gave them a talk. I will continue to do this as we get ready to make appropriations decisions.”

With regard to lessons learned, Allen Li said “if I were here 30 years from now – I would not want to be in a situation with an operational RLV where we had to do a similar series of upgrades. The Shuttle was not really designed with reliability and maintainability in mind. This must be part of the next vehicle and we should not shortchange that part of the process.”

Nelson closed by saying “In January 1986, 10 days after our flight returned to Earth, the same thing that almost happened to us happened to someone else. I deem this to be a great privilege to be able to speak out.”

Related Links

  • Statement of Bryan O’Connor, Futron Corporation

  • Statement of Allen Li, General Accounting Office

  • Statement of Richard Blomberg, Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel

  • Statement of Michael McCulley, United Space Alliance

  • Statement of William F. Readdy, NASA

  • Remarks by Sen. Bill Nelson to the Senate Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee: Hearing on space shuttle safety

    Background Information

  • Upgrading the Space Shuttle, National Research Council Report, 1999

  • Space Shuttle Upgrades, NASA JSC

  • Glass cockpit Shuttle Upgrade, NASA JSC

  • Space Shuttle Upgrades, Boeing

  • Upgrades and the Space Shuttle Program – Frequently Asked Questions, NASA KSC

  • Space Shuttle Safety Upgrades, NASA MSFC

  • GAO letter report (August 2000) to Sen. McCain Regarding Space Shuttle Safety Report

  • McCain Concerned by NASA’s Cost Mismanagement (Sep 2001)

  • NASA: International Space Station and Shuttle Support Cost Limits, GAO-01-1000R, August 2001

  • Space Launch Initiative News, NASA MSFC

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