Sunday, April 26, 2009

Please, don't rush this job

Today, we're starting a weekly column about space issues. I hope to prompt civil discussion of issues. The column will appear Mondays in the print newspaper, but Flame Trench readers will see it here early, every Sunday afternoon. I hope you enjoy the column and the resulting discussion. If you want to weigh in, you can click comment below or just e-mail me directly here. Here's the first column.

September 30, 2010, can't become the new February 19, 2004.

The two dates seem arbitrary because they are. They may seem unrelated, but they're not.

September 30, 2010, is technically the deadline for finishing the last space shuttle mission and retiring the fleet.

February 19, 2004, was the deadline for finishing construction of the International Space Station. That was before Columbia.

Under intense pressure to keep space station building on schedule and within budget, managers harped on that date. They installed screen-savers on workers' computers counting down the seconds. The message: hurry up, time is running out on your program.

Then we lost the Columbia astronauts. Investigators blamed the accident in part on schedule pressure, saying it drove people to make bad tradeoffs favoring on-time flights over safety. They wrote, "most of the shuttle program's concerns about Columbia's foam strike were not about the threat it might pose to the vehicle in orbit, but about the threat it might pose to the schedule."

Fast-forward to 2009. NASA's shuttle program is again working against the clock. I believe managers, engineers and front-line shuttle workers learned the agonizing lessons of Columbia and will not repeat those mistakes on purpose. But, the influence of schedule pressure can be subtle.

In a business demanding perfection, it's the little unnoticed decisions that can add up to catastrophe. Subtle pressure is there in the form of the 2010 deadline. NASA needs to fly nine more missions to complete the shuttle's mission, which is to finish building and outfitting a space station that can stay in orbit a decade or so.

That's as many as nine missions in about 19 months, or almost six launches per year. Since return to flight, NASA has flown about three times a year. Even that has required near-flawless preparation by crews at Kennedy Space Center and some (recent) good luck with the weather.

Nothing is impossible, but flying shuttles every other month or so is as close as it gets. With three orbiters left, stricter safety rules and slim budgets, flying these last missions is going to be hard enough without the tick-tock of the clock booming in the background. Making matters worse: an exodus of talented people fleeing for more secure jobs.

So, what needs to happen?

First, President Obama needs to name a NASA administrator or empower acting leader Christopher Scolese to begin the realignment of priorities that the president promised during the campaign. NASA appears almost paralyzed by the lack of guidance and conflicting rumors about which way the president plans to go next.

Second, someone must determine if all the flights scheduled are needed. If so, leaders need to make clear that the shuttles will be retired upon completion of their mission and not some date on the calendar.

On the other hand, if it's determined that the U.S. can't afford to fly past 2010, then it needs to be made clear that missions at the tail end of the schedule are optional and will be canceled if they can't be flown safely by then. Right now, there seems to be much confusion and debate on this point.

You can't rush this job. We've learned that lesson twice, the hard way.

Image Note: In the Vehicle Assembly Building, workers prepare segments of the rocket for the Ares 1-X test flight, which is scheduled to launch later this year from the Kennedy Space Center. Click on the picture to see a larger version.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Kelly:

Interesting column. Would you be willing to entertain suggestions for future columns?

Perhaps some of your valued and cherished readers could suggest column topics that you could focus your investigatory skills on like a "laser".

Looking forwards to the next one.

Rick Steele

Ian O'Neill said...

Wow, 9 shuttle launches in 19 months? That's enough to give any NASA administrator heartburn.

You are right to draw conclusions with the period before Columbia, unfortunately I think NASA became *too* confident about their prowess in space and overlooked too many factors in 2004.

I don't think the last few shuttle flights should be working toward any kind of deadline and some serious consideration needs to be spent on deciding whether all of the 9 launches are necessary. We are talking about a vehicle that is getting very old - 25 years (or thereabouts for the remaining fleet of three) is old for any vehicle, let alone a space vehicle where one tiny fault could spell disaster for several astronauts.

And we certainly need a leader at the helm of NASA, the space agency needs direction more than ever during these times of flux. Let's hope President Obama expedites a solution.

Cheers, Ian

Anonymous said...

I agree, some good investigative reporting is dearly needed. Corruption and Incompetence are everywhere out here. How about starting with the added cost of all these 'accidents'- the dropping of the wrench at the pad this past week, the lightbulb fiasco from last year in the SSPF, the dropped window cover that fell onto the OMS pod the night before STS-114 returned us to flight or the multiple fires that have happened inside orbiters when parked inside the hangars of the SSPF that my own company, USA never disclosed to NASA let alone the public.

Anonymous said...

IF I remember, two of the remaining flights were for spart parts for the Station. Can they be flown up via unmanned Soyuz? That would be safer and you could then delete those flights if required. Also, they are talking about an extra flight to put that new telescope in orbit. I believe that flight is very important, and should move to the top of the list, as the telescope can only be launched via shuttle. I am very much in favor of retiring the shuttle ASAP, but I seriously doubt anyone would be begrudge NASA a few extra months if essential to complete the job safely.

Anonymous said...

We need to somehow tie the Shuttle Program with the oil industry or pharmaceutical industry and I bet congress could find all kinds of money to keep the shuttles flying beyond 2010. Congress found 30 billion to send over to Africa to fight AIDS, but they cant find 5 billion to spend here in America to keep America the leader in space. I think we need to retire the people in Congress, NOT the Space Shuttles!!!

Anonymous said...

Obama will delay ,delay ,delay picking a new head . But then he will pick one and and he will be hailed as a prescient savior as usual . Kinda like the Pirates thing .
They need the shuttle to finish the station .Fly it until that's done be it 2011 or 2013 .Then keep it on standby with enough people to push it out and fly it in a risky emergency until they get Ares(or something like Ares ) out the door .
All the folks will not keep their jobs unless a national emergency pops up involving space access ,which it might .

John Kelly said...


Of course, as always. Any ideas you've got are welcome.


Bruce In KC said...

I think they have got it backwards. Instead of a fixed retirement date, The official word should be "nine more flights, then no more." If it takes until 2011 or 2012 to fly these flights in a prudent, safe manner - so be it.

Anonymous said...


In your article you mentioned two significant items. One is the fact that the President has reneged on his campaign promised to give NASA his total support – by failing to appoint a new NASA Administrator during his first hundred days. Until he does that the agency is floating along in a rudderless condition and no significant decisions can be made. Shame on him.

Secondly, at the end of your article you mention the Ares I-X test flight, scheduled to launch later this year. Hopefully you do not believe this is a significant milestone, because it is not. The Ares I-X rocket is only a four segment solid rocket, just like the current Shuttle SRB’s (which we all know work OK), and only bears a superficial resemblance to the REAL Ares rocket. The real Ares will be a brand new FIVE SEGMENT rocket that has had – in tests – some very serious pogo problems (high level vibrations) that will make it unsuitable for carrying human life into space. NASA is working on costly fixes, and they may work, but the Ares I-X flight is nothing more than a PUBLICITY STUNT designed to keep the press and the public thinking all is well. Until a real five segment Ares successfully flies, Ares cannot be considered a truly viable option for the Constellation program.

Anonymous said...

Rather than fly the Killing Machine 9 more times, they should simply end the shuttle program after the Hubble mission. The ISS is a complete waste of money and time; it's taught us nothing about travelling to Mars, except how to work with international partners. Its occupants spend most of their time just maintaining that $100 Billion boondoggle.

Get on with Constellation right now.

John Kelly said...

We keep seeing the space shuttle characterized in terms like "killing machine" or "too dangerous." That's hyperbole. It overstates shuttle's weaknesses in the extreme. The problem with saying "retire the shuttle because it's unsafe" is that any human spacecraft will be dangerous. Flying people in space, by definition, bears risk. Without a couple decades of data to prove it, I'm not willing to buy the argument that the new system will be any safer than the shuttle. Prepare all the Powerpoint slides you want, but the only way to prove a replacement system will be safer than the shuttle is to fly it a hundred or so times to give me comparable data. Humans will continue to make the decisions. Human error remains a primary cause of the major U.S. space accidents so far. None of the systems on the drawing board eliminate human factors. The systems that help mitigate human errors, via extensive hardware redundancies as well as organizational checks and balances, will get better. They will never be perfect. Any argument to the contrary ignores both history and reality. Safer? Maybe. Safe? Never. The reasons to retire shuttle are to free money for the future program and improve the capability of human spaceflight systems to achieve new goals.

Anonymous said...

Milk it Baby, Milk it!

Anonymous said...

If FLORIDA TODAY plans on high-lighting the Space Program, please focus on two things: First, include in your article the correct information regarding any incident at KSC. The incident regarding the dropped socket was incompletely reported in your paper and did not include the facts about this mishap.

Second, FLORIDA TODAY is obviously selling papers with gloom and doom stories on the front page regarding KSC and the Space Program. If five to six thousand people lose their jobs then your paper could lose more employees than you have or perhaps even completely fold. Instead of printing these negative stories why don't you focus on front page news about what the Space Program has provided the world with space spinoff products? This information is free of charge - just log on and type in "Space Spinoffs", or, you can order your one FREE copy of the most recently produced products. The economy is sinking, crime rate is sky-rocketing, and we need more positive informatio about the Space Program of the United States of America. After all, FLORIDA TODAY, this is also YOUR Space Program!!

James Dean said...

Anonymous: please contact me with any additional info on the wrench mishap. We got ours from NASA's press office. Thanks, James Dean, 321-639-3644,

John Kelly said...

We've been consistently reporting a net job loss of 3,500 from Kennedy Space Center during the transition. If you're talking about overstating job loss numbers, you must mean someone else.

Anonymous said...

John: Above you seem to suggest the shuttle might or might be as safe as the Constellation turns out to be. I respectfully believe you are skipping past the basic fact that the shuttle is a glider and the new system is like Apollo. The shuttles over the years have had delay after (costly) delay after delay, mostly due to it being a glider and the emergency return-to-launch scenario, plus delays for landings (wind and clouds) that often cause the cross-country trip. The capsule-on-top configuration (my guess) will eliminated 80% of the launch constrictions (still have clouds and rain) and 99% of the re-entry delays (capsule just plops into the ocean). Given this, if the new system isn't "safer, more timely and more cost effective," it means we will have done an absolutely horrid job designer it. While "killing machine" might be hyperbole, even Adm Griffin admitted the shuttle was a bad design. The best we can say for it is "extremely unwieldy."


CharlesTheSpaceGuy said...

It appears that we have saddled ourselves again with an arbitrary date, and we have signed up to a characterization of the Shuttle that mis-interprets various documents.

The date was NOT chosen to complete the Station but to retire the Shuttle on an arbitrary date after the Bush administration was safely over. To "complete" the Station - there is not a specific date. We should establish a hardware configuration that includes Node 3, the cupola, etc but also has a good set of spare parts. Such as Control Moment Gyros, etc - heavy stuff that can ONLY come up on the Shuttle. The original proposed list of flights had many more than are on the current list! Even the remaining scheduled flights (let's include Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer here) does not include the certrifuge, lots of spare parts, etc etc. We have only three Shuttles left, and limited parts for them, so we have to retire it at some point in the moderate future. But when we do, we will lose the ability to use the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, lose the big payload capability, etc.
The Shuttle has been referred here as the Killing Machine but the Shuttle has performed well even when sent into environments that it was not designed for! The failures have been of management - launching in cold weather, ignoring signs of broken tiles, etc etc. The fix needed is to find managers that are truely dedicated to a deliberate pace.

The Shuttle is a design that is good or bad depending on what we ask it to do. It is the only vehicle with an RMS - even Orion will not have one of those.

The Orion will have to go thru it's test phase - and during that phase will have unknown weaknesses and vulnerabilities. How many flights of Orion will be "test" flights?? It is reasonable to conclude that Orion will be less safe for it's initial flights than Shuttle is today. Human error is what kills people - and the vast majority of that error is made before flight, on the ground.

And can we conclude that the Orion will NEVER have an accident? Or NEVER have a fatal one? Don't bet on that.

Bruce In KC said...

If you were to go back and read through the flight transcripts and mission reports of all of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flights you would find quite a few close calls. It's almost a miracle that no crews were lost in flight, only on the ground (Apollo 1). To call the Shuttle a "Killing Machine" is a bit disingenuous. If the earlier programs had flown the same number of missions as the Space Shuttle there probably would have been in-flight fatalities in those programs too.

Anonymous said...

James Dean -- You asked someone to "contact me with any additional info on the wrench mishap. We got ours from NASA's press office."

I would suggest that what you described is exactly what is wrong with Florida TODAY's reporting on the Space program -- you expect to be spoon fed by NASA PAO, and you are likely NOT going to get the straight story there. You need to get out in the aerospace community, develop some serious sources, and stop relying on the PAO people. 30 and 40 years ago that is the only way the space news in Brevard was reported. No respectable reporter got his info from the Air Force and NASA Public Affairs people, because they knew they would not get straight stories there. Those stories would always be slanted to make NASA or the AF look good. You need to go back to doing the same kind of thing -- it's called "investigative reporting" -- or just stop reporting on Space at all.

P.S. I did not submit the original comment about the wrench mishap and know little about it. But you people need to develop sources that will get you the real scoop.

James Dean said...

Thanks for the comment, and I completely agree with your reporting philosophy. I don't think we always have a positive spin. The earlier comment suggests we actually do too much "gloom and doom." But readers here often provide information that isn't offered by PAO, and that's always appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Whether the date is arbitrary is not the issue. The fact is that date was chosen several years ago. Suppliers that were under contract to maintain an inventory of spare parts were given notice of contract termination, as were the companies that provided various types of support. Plans were made to retire support facilities and allocate their space to other purposes. The shuttle fleet was the most advanced space flight system ever built, and that came at a high cost for which NASA was often highly criticized. The first launch was on April 12, 1981. I am certain that anyone who witnessed that launch will never forget the awe and pride they felt that day, I know I never will. Challenger’s accident was January 28, 1986 not quite five years later. I am also certain that anyone who witnessed that twisted smoke plume will never forget the pain and anguish they felt on that day, I know it still chokes me up.

Back in 1981 the IBM PC was less than a year old. It ran on a 4.77MHz 8088 chip, had 16KB of RAM and two 160KB 8” floppy drives. It is now 2009; children’s games have 1000 times the processing power of the first PC, and the shuttle fleet has been flying for more than twenty eight years. It is ageing and is ready to be gracefully retired. There is never a good time for something like that, but there is a better time, and 2010 is that better time. While NASA may squeeze in another launch or two, at some point the cost of keeping the fleet flying will become excessive. One way or another that cost will end up coming out of the budget for future operations, and it’s not a good idea to rob from the future. I know there are jobs that will end when the shuttle program ends, that has been known since before the decision was finalized. What wasn’t known was what the state of the economy would be at that time. I don’t mean to sound callous but if we are going to advance into the future there will always be jobs that end, and new jobs that begin. While no single individual is a statistic, I believe that when measured on a per capita basis Brevard County lost more jobs when LBJ moved Apollo Mission Control to Houston than we stand to lose with the retirement of the Shuttle Fleet. While that was tough for some people, we recovered and are stronger today for having lived through it.

It is unfortunate that with all their experience with budget and schedule overruns the government did not account for the fact that Constellation might not be ready to take over the Shuttle’s job on schedule. Now there will be a “gap” in our space support. I also think it is interesting that with the Constellation Program NASA abandoned the reusable lander design and went back to a very “Apollo-like” design approach. I suppose we’ll have to wait a little while longer before our spaceships look like the ones in the old Sci-Fi movies. I always thought it would be neat if NASA could launch a fully fueled shuttle main tank as a payload on a large Delta or Titan, and then have the shuttle connect to it once it’s on orbit. I figured that would have provided plenty of fuel to leave earth orbit, and return. But who knows? The main tank probably wasn’t designed for extended use in deep space; still it would have been cool.

thomas bissell said...

Mr. Kelly, I commend your effort, in this attempt at getting the public involved in this forum! Hopefully, this will get the attention of the policy makers in Washington, that drive & fund the shuttle program.
Do they(politicians) really believe, in the current policicital situation of the past couple of years, that the Russians are really going to live up to the agreements made to be the worlds "sole source" of transportion back & forth to the space station?? Especilly after the armed invasion of Georgia??
The space station has just this year reached it's full potential, that it was designed for(a crew of 6).
Since Mr. Bush saw fit to slow this whole process down, so he could fund "his war " in Iraq.
There is nothing wrong with the space station or the shuttle fleet!! If properly maintained they both will last for years to come!!

I just do not think it is a prudent move to put all our eggs in one basket, & rely strictly on the "Soyuz" capsules for rides to& from the space station. Now that there are 6 people up there, how is that going to get done? Have 2 "Soyuz" parked up there at all times, for emergency evacuation, should that situation arise???