The Danger of Perpetuating False Urban Myths in Space

By Keith Cowing
January 29, 2004
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The Danger of Perpetuating False Urban Myths in Space

Everyone loves to poke fun at the government for paying too much for things. Examples such as $500 toilet seats on Air Force planes and the like have taken on mythical stature. NASA is no different.

Often times when such exaggerated military program costs are questioned, the official response will either suggest that this was a one time anomaly or that this is what it costs to produce an item that meets the specific requirements of the military.

You hear similar refrains from NASA. As is actually the case with many military items which need to be made extra rugged, last longer, and function in hazardous environments, the same goes for many things NASA needs to procure.

When you design things to be used inside a spacecraft you need to be certain that they will do their job – and do it safely. This must be the case even if something goes wrong – such as loss of cabin pressure, exposure to space, launch and landing loads for example. If something runs the chance of being exposed to an ‘off nominal’ situation you need to know that, in a worse case scenario, it “fails safe” i.e. at a minimum poses no risk to the crew.

Conditions inside a spacecraft are rather mundane. Indeed, with the absence of gravity’s effects for the vast majority of a mission, things don’t necessarily need to be robust as they would on Earth. In many cases you can fly “COTS” (commercial off the shelf) items with little or no modification. And when modification is needed it can be as simple as putting a piece of Velcro on it so as to allow he crew to secure it somewhere. A close look at photos from the ISS shows tubes of hot sauce, candy, pens, paperback books, and a variety of things someone bought in a store.

When you go outside however, things get complicated – and they do so fast. In Earth orbit temperatures can move across ranges of several hundred degrees in a short period of time. Lack of an atmosphere can cause things such as lubricants to freeze and or evaporate. Joints and other moving parts can quickly become immobile.

To be certain there are a lot of hazardous environments here on Earth for which things must be engineered so as to function. In some cases, the potential hazards warrant the addition of substantial amounts of reserve capability (life span, strength) to allow the user a certain degree of safety. Indeed you can buy many of these items in a store or from a catalog.

As is usually the case when NASA’s ability to accomplish the tasks ahead of it is discussed before Congress, someone has to cite an egregious example of how NASA got it wrong. Given that NASA has botched a number of things in recent years (we’ll forget about all of their comparatively larger number of success for the time being) it is easy to find examples to make Congressional eyes roll.

This was the case on 28 January 2004 during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Rick Tumlinson, from the Space Frontier Foundation was among a panel of four who testified after the NASA Administrator. A strong proponent of involving the private sector in NASA’s programs Tumlinson always has some witty, usually to the point observations to make.

In this one case one of these cost myths found itself being brandished about as proof of NASA’s inability to use common sense when buying hardware – in this case, a common piece of rock climbing gear that could be bought in a sporting goods store.

Being a former rock climber myself, this specific myth caught my attention. Tumlinson held up a carabiner and claimed that carabiners “are used to tether astronauts to the International Space Station” and then went on to accuse NASA of being hostile to potential commercial solutions to its engineering needs.

In his written statement Tumlinson says:

This story came to me from Bill Haynes, a former Air Force test pilot. “(Consider) the carabiners astronauts use to tether themselves during EVA. The best climber’s carabiner at REI costs $19.00. I found the manufacturer of NASA’s carabiners, and he said he charges $1,095.00 each. When I told him about REI’s, he said sure, he could probably sell his for a $100 or so, except that NASA requires a “pedigree” all the way from the mine for every ounce of aluminum in his, his welders and machinists each have to be re-certified every six months and the paperwork stack that accompanies each carabiner is inches high. That might make sense for say, the turbine buckets in the Space Shuttle Main Engines. It makes absolutely no sense for those carabiners that will never encounter more than about a fifty lb. load in space. The REI carabiners are rated at 6,500 lbs.”

Carabiners (also known as ‘biners’) are metallic, oval-shaped devices that are indeed very strong and have a spring-loaded “gate” to allow the carabiner to be attached to ropes or other pieces of climbing gear.

With regard to the myth cited, Mr. Tumlinson and Mr. Haynes are mistaken. Astronauts do not use carabiners during EVAs. A check with the folks at JSC who do this for a living will confirm this.

Commercial carabiners are indeed strong, and can be used in rather extreme mountaineering situations where it gets rather cold. In space, however, items used during EVAs can be exposed to temperature extremes that range several hundred degrees above and below freezing in a matter of minutes – depending on whether you are in the sunlit or dark part of an orbit. As such you need to use materials that are designed to function through out these temperature ranges.

The aluminum used in commercial carabiners would likely not be practical in space given that the constant heating and freezing would likely cause deterioration in the structure of the carabiner. Indeed, carabiners used in exceptionally cold climbing frays on Earth can start to behave stiffly. It would also affect the ability of the gate to open and close – specifically the spring mechanism. While there are large carabiners that are easier to use with thick gloves, the gloves used by astronauts are not renowned for their dexterity. Having used carabiners in a variety of rock, ice, and snow situations – with gloves on – I would expect that a standard issue carabiner would be somewhat difficult to use with standard EMU gloves.

According to a NASA source who is very familiar with EVA tools design, when NASA does use off the shelf hardware, the items have to be disassembled and reworked because the majority of materials and the way in which the devices are lubricated will not survive the space environment without freezing up or becoming brittle. Socket wrenches are an example of devices that require some reworking.

In addition to the mechanics, there is the issue of ergonomics. Most off the shelf devices have handles or grips that need to be redesigned because they are designed to be used bare-handed not with an EMU gloved hand. Moreover they do not have the various additional attachment points needed to secure the gear from floating away.

As for the loads encountered in space: yes, due to the fact that spacecraft are falling about the Earth (orbiting it that is), the felt effect of gravity on a person or an object is essentially zero. However, things in space (people, hardware) still have mass – and the issue of inertia becomes rather significant when you start to move things around. Mr. Tumlinson provides no data to support his contention that “loads” in space would not exceed “50 lbs.”

This is not to say that the specialized gear designed or modified for use in space doesn’t have its inspiration or initial design modeled after things you can buy in a store. Its just that the process of making certain that things will work in space – and will do so safely and reliably – takes time – and time equates to money.

Mr. Tumlinson does touch on a topic which I also saw myself a decade ago when I worked at NASA and is probably unchanged today. I wrote about it in Climbing Magazine in an article “Everest on Orbit“. Specifically, I was interested in the contraption that the techs at KSC used to lower someone into the Spacelab module while in the shuttle cargo bay on the pad to load it up prior to launch: “As soon as I got home I sent the techs a Black Diamond [rock climbing gear] catalog. The last I heard, they would have liked to buy several harnesses – but would have had to purchase a prohibitively large batch of dozens to be tested according to government (rather than UIAA) specs.”

There is a larger issue at work here as systems and hardware are developed for the future exploration of space. The way that materials perform during spaceflight was at the core of the Columbia accident. Who would have thought that a simple chunk of foam could mortally wound a space shuttle such that it would disintegrate upon reentry? Before the accident, experts would have discounted this as being nonsense – yet it turned out to be the cause.

As Sean O’Keefe said this week “we need to question what we hear asserted as fact. Those assumptions assumed to be correct were often the strongest contributors [to the Columbia accident] when those assumptions turn out to be false.” As JPL’s Rob Manning said the other day in describing the avalanche of new things being learned for Mars – a comment echoed again by O’Keefe “our truths are temporary.”

Despite the contention by many, including Mr. Tumlinson, that doing things in space is easy, it is not. It is often very hard – and exceptionally unforgiving. It is also a learning process that never ends. Sure, there are a multitude of things NASA does inefficiently – many are indeed simply dumb. But to wave a hand – and use a factually false analogy before Congress in a dismissive fashion – serves nobody well.

To assert that space must always be hard is perhaps as equally fraught with exemptions as the claim that it should be easy.

One thing is certain: Space is unique – and it will always be surprising.

It will never be routine.

Response to this article from Rick Tumlinson

Dear Mr. Cowing,

I enjoyed reading your critique of that part of my testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee regarding the NASA acquisition of caribiners. I must say that you are correct. Although the story of the acquisition and the more than 5000% increase in their price due to red tape etc. was true (as far as I can tell) I did make the comment that such devices were used in space by astronauts – which was a mistake. In my few days of prep I was rushing to find an example that would make my point that NASA’s current practices and processes drive up cost, kill innovation and result in extreme inefficiencies that would not be tolerated in any private sector business and I am afraid will kill the President’s visionary return to the Moon effort.

I should have instead used other, more dramatic examples of what you refer to as “mythology”, such as the nearly $100 billion dollar cost over run of the International Space Station relative to its announced cost by then President Reagan.  Or perhaps I might have cited the “myth” that the space shuttle has been a successful space transportation program, although it is unable to achieve even a fraction of its promised flight rate, and does so at a cost far exceeding what the taxpayers were led to believe. However, I don’t think I could have gotten the space station or space shuttle into the room, let alone past the metal detectors.

I do take issue with the idea that I am somehow oversimplifying the dangerous nature of space activities. Your comments in that regard actually confused me a bit, as I have never said space was easy, or denigrated the risk faced by our brave space explorers. In fact, I refer you to the end of my presentation, where I discussed the need to change the current spasmodic nature of safety PR versus actual practices. You will note I called for the agency to confront the dangers of space by acknowledging that people will die in this quest, and by putting in and actually following its own safety procedures to protect our astronauts and future space workers.

Again, I do admit you were correct about the mistake I made in the specific part of my presentation you cited.  In the future I will make sure to use better examples and to double and triple check my facts, so you need not waste time and energy correcting me, and can focus on the great and unbiased reporting you do on our government space program. Also, as I am sure the agency will be making a huge effort to clean up its rampant waste and inefficiencies so that it can indeed deliver on the President’s wonderful mandate, the Space Frontier Foundation will soon be announcing a $1,000.00 annual prize to be awarded to whistle blowers and others who uncover such (verifiable) stories to be presented at our annual Alt.Space conference in Los Angeles on Columbus Day weekend. (www.SpaceFrontierFoundation.org)


Rick Tumlinson, co-Founder, The Space Frontier Foundation

NASA ISS EVA Operations Documents

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  • EVA Reference 3A/STS-92 [Acrobat 6.4 MB]

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  • EVA Reference 4A/STS-97 [Acrobat 688K]

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  • ISS EVA Checklist ISS-7A, Mission Operations Directorate, Operations Division, JSC 48538, 27 April 2001, [Acrobat 3.3 MB]

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  • Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Standard
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    , SSP 30256:001, Revision F, February 7, 1997, NASA JSC. Part [1] [2] [3] (Adobe Acrobat)

    The Space Station provides Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Aids to assist EVA crewmembers in
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