I’ve long been arguing to friends and colleagues that NASA is a broken agency, incapable of managing an operation as dangerous yet important as sending humans and robotic craft into space. The latest confirmation comes in the form of two internal documents relating to NASA’s preparations to relaunch the space shuttle Discovery next month. The documents, leaked to New York Times reporter John Schwartz by NASA employees, portray an agency struggling to deny the real risks built into the space shuttles, which have killed 14 astronauts so far. (That’s twice the number killed on all other American and Russian space vehicles combined.)
The documents are presentations written by John Muratore, the shuttle program’s manager of systems engineering and integration, in February and March. As Schwartz explains it, the documents detail reasons for relaxing the safety thresholds that various components of Discovery must meet before the craft can be fully certified for launch. Muratore recommends abandoning the traditional worst-case scenarios used to calculate risk and instead using scenarios built on “our best estimate of actual conditions.” He also suggests that for certain scenarios, such as the impact of foam from the external tank on the the leading edges of the shuttle’s wings during launch (the problem that led to Columbia’s destruction), the level of risk considered tolerable should be lowered from “three sigma” – a statistical measure equivalent to a 1 in 800 chance of a component failure – to “two sigma,” a 1 in 40 chance.
In effect, Muratore’s presentations manufacture rationalizations for ignoring the safety standards set by the agency itself in response to the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board two years ago. Given that this is hardly the first time shuttle managers have been caught trying to convince themselves that known risks aren’t so frightening, it’s tempting to conclude that the agency’s initials actually stand for “Never Assess Shuttles Adequately.”
Schwartz showed the leaked documents to Paul Czysz, an emeritus professor of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University and a 30-year veteran of NASA contractor McDonnell Douglas. Czysz “compared the statistical shifts to moving the goal posts at a football game,” in Schwartz’s words. Czysz himself said “I was amazed at how they were adjusting every test to make it come out right.”
In an interview with Schwartz, Muratore denied any intent to “jiggle” the numbers and defended his argument that the worst-case scenarios used in previous planning efforts were overly conservative. “If you plan for the absolute worst-on-worst case, it can fake you out into thinking you can’t do anything,” he told Schwartz.
Muratore’s assertion is both chilling and revealing. It betrays the assumption endemic at the agency that the shuttle program must continue, the risks be damned. But in fact, it might be better for NASA, for its astronauts, and for the future of space exploration if NASA really did do nothing – that is, if it retired the shuttles now and went back to the drawing board. (That would probably entail mothballing the International Space Station, too. But the space station is itself a giant rationalization for the space shuttle – a place to shuttle to, nothing more.)
But starting over is not, apparently, a possibility NASA is capable of contemplating. And that’s why it’s time to euthanize the agency and begin again with new leadership, a new bureaucracy, and a new set of milestones to meet. Nothing less, I’m afraid, will suffice to break the American space program out of its shuttle-bound mindset and put it back on a rational path toward exploring the solar system.