Making Spaceflight Too Safe?


The verdict is in: NASA screwed up, and as a result the space shuttle Columbia blew up last February.

That's the bottom line of the report issued yesterday by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). The chief problem, the report concluded, is NASA's "workplace culture." Seems that NASA, like any other government or corporate bureaucracy, became stodgy and ossified over time. So, by all means, fix the technical problems, and find and fire any incompetent NASA employees.

But don't let the take-home message of the report be "safety first" at all costs. Flying a shuttle is not like driving a bus: It's very dangerous. After all, shuttles are strapped to a giant fuel tank filled with liquid hydrogen that is cooled to 423 degrees Fahrenheit, and that burns explosively when combined with liquid oxygen at 6000 degrees Fahrenheit. This produces the energy equivalent of 23 Hoover Dams. The solid fuel rockets burn more than 1.1 million pounds of fuel in 120 seconds, at a temperature that would boil steel. This generates more thrust than 35 jumbo jets combined. If the heat of the solid fuel rockets could be converted into electric power, it would produce enough electricity to juice 87,000 houses for a full day. This means that the shuttle goes from 0 to 17,000 miles per hour in about eight minutes.

Some 1.2 million different procedures have to be performed to get a shuttle ready for launch. After the shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, NASA made 400 safety improvements at a cost of two billion dollars. And despite all those safety improvements, the brave men and women lost on the Columbia chose to go into space knowing that NASA estimated that one shuttle would be lost for every 265 missions. By comparison, the risk of dying in a commercial airline crash is 1 in 8 million, and even the risk of crashing a fighter jet is just 1 in 10,000.

Risk-taking is part of an astronaut's job. And a manager's too. When a bit of foam debris hits shuttles over and over on takeoff and nothing happens, it's not completely unreasonable to conclude that nothing might happen this time too. Sure, maybe engineers should speak out more freely about their concerns, and maybe managers should listen more carefully.

The CAIB has identified technical safety problems, and they will be fixed. But the report also recommends that NASA create "an independent Technical Engineering Authority" that would be in charge of shuttle safety. Adding a new managerial layer of scared, risk-averse bureaucrats is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We all know what really works—competition.

Competition focuses the minds of even the stodgiest technocrats. So let's end NASA's monopoly on human space flight. Let the private sector design, test and fly innovative, cheaper, and yes, safer spacecraft. This is not a pie-in-the-sky proposal. Some 20 teams of aerospace pioneers are gearing up to risk their lives to test-fly cheap reusable suborbital spacecraft in the next year or so.

If we didn't want any astronauts ever to risk their lives, we could simply stop sending men and women into space. A timid workplace culture is not what got us to the moon and back again, and it will not serve us for the adventures yet to come.