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Stumbling into Space

1.

George W. Bush’s January 14 speech at NASA headquarters, in which he set the manned space program on a new trajectory, was an oddly dissociated event. NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe stood alone at stage left with his arms hanging limply at his sides and his fingers curled, looking like an eagle that has just eaten a gratifyingly plump mouse but is having trouble digesting it. The President, adopting his customary tank-window squint, briefly praised shuttle astronauts for conducting “important research” and helping to build the International Space Station—and then enthused about the “stunning images” from NASA space telescopes and the investigations being conducted by its probes of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The odd thing was that aside from Bush’s tip of the hat to the shuttle and the station—whose death warrants he was signing—all the triumphs he cited were the work of unmanned robotic spacecraft.

Which pretty much reflects the problem. NASA is two agencies—three, if you count aerospace—in one. Its unmanned programs are flying high: robotic probes have sampled the sands of Mars, mapped every planet in the solar system this side of Pluto, inspected comets and asteroids, photographed infant galaxies near the edge of the observable universe, and made incalculable contributions to terrestrial communications, agriculture, geology, and weather forecasting, all at a fraction of the cost of sending astronauts up there. Meanwhile, the manned program is stuck in low Earth orbit. As Bush noted, “In the past thirty years, no human being has set foot on another world, or ventured farther upward into space than 386 miles—roughly the distance from Washington, D.C. to Boston, Massachusetts.” It is as if sixteenth-century Spain, three decades after Columbus, lacked a single ship capable of venturing out of sight of land.

Can the Bush plan get manned spaceflight going again—and should it?

Bush was amply justified in deciding to retire the shuttle, which despite all its merits—it is, after all, the world’s only winged, reusable spaceship—never had a raison d’être and had become both an emblem and a cause of NASA’s woes. Dreamed up as a kind of hangover cure in the days following the Apollo lunar missions, when the NASA budget was shrinking from over 4 percent of the federal budget to its current level of under 1 percent, the shuttle was sold to Congress as a cost-effective way of putting humans and satellites in orbit. Taken in by NASA hype, President Nixon assured the nation that “a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from Earth to orbit and back…will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it,” and President Reagan declared, following three test flights of the first space shuttle, Columbia, that shuttles were now “ready to provide economical and routine access to space.”

This was sheer fantasy, as NASA was in a position to know and ought to have admitted. Economical? The shuttle substantially raised the costs of putting vehicles in orbit, rather than reducing them: at well over $300 million per launch, it costs $10,000 per pound for the shuttle to deliver a payload into orbit—two to five times the going commercial rate. Routine? Combine two of the space agency’s own predictions—that the shuttle would fly almost weekly, which never happened, and that it would realize a 98 percent safety record, which turned out to be about right—and you’re looking at a shuttle crash every year. To have funded that sort of prospective carnage indicates that neither NASA nor the Nixon White House believed the forecasts on which they were basing their decisions.

The process of purveying such claims sent NASA down the slippery slope of believing its own press releases, a degeneration remarked upon by both the Rogers Commission, which investigated the explosion of the shuttle Challenger seventy-three seconds after launch on January 28, 1986, and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, convened after that shuttle disintegrated while reentering the atmosphere on February 1, 2003. The Columbia board, chaired by Harold Gehman Jr.—a sixty-year-old retired four-star admiral given to the unrelenting pursuit of hard facts—has produced a clearer and more coherent report than did the Rogers Commission, but it makes an even more depressing read since so little at NASA seems to have changed during the seventeen years separating the two accidents. It concludes that the Columbia crash was “not a random event, but rather a product of…a series of political compromises that produced unreasonable expectations—even myths—about its performance.” NASA bought into these myths, at one point boasting that the shuttle was “the most reliable, flexible, and cost-effective launch system in the world” when in fact, according to the report, it was and still is “a developmental vehicle that operates not in routine flight but in the realm of dangerous exploration.”

The proximate causes of Columbia‘s demise were not particularly difficult to discern, although the Gehman board took pains to verify them and to analyze competing hypotheses. In essence, two things happened. First, eighty-two seconds after launch, a 2.7-pound chunk of insulating foam broke loose from the shuttle’s fuel tank and knocked a hole in the leading edge of its left wing. Second, although NASA soon became aware of the incident, it took inadequate steps to determine the extent of the damage and did nothing at all to protect the astronauts against what proved to be its lethal effects.

At launch, the space shuttle system consists of a reusable spaceship, or “orbiter,” about the size of a DC-9, attached to the side of a gigantic fuel tank, 154 feet long and 28 feet in diameter, containing the liquid hydrogen/ oxygen fuel that powers the orbiter’s engines. (Additional power is provided by a pair of solid rocket boosters, of which the malfunction of one blew up the Challenger.) Because hydrogen and oxygen have to be kept extremely cold in order to remain liquid rather than turn into vapor, the tank is covered with a layer of insulating foam. Keeping the foam glued firmly to the freezing, sweating tank had long been a headache for NASA engineers, and on many occasions pieces of it had come loose, hit the orbiter, and done damage. The worst such debris strike occurred during a launch in December 1988, when the shuttle Atlantis sustained a flabbergasting 707 foam hits. Mission commander R.L. “Hoot” Gibson inspected the damage with a video camera attached to the shuttle’s robotic arm. (Columbia had no such arm.) “It looked like we had been shotgun-blasted,” he recalled. “I looked at those pictures and said, ‘We are going to die’ to myself.”1 Ground control pronounced the damage acceptable and Atlantis landed without incident. It turned out to have lost a heat-protection tile, but fortunately an aluminum plate happened to lie beneath the tile. Otherwise, in Gibson’s estimation, his mission might not have made it home.

The very fact that so many shuttles survived foam strikes evidently lulled NASA into underestimating the danger. Although photos showing the debris strike during Columbia‘s final launch raised concerns on the ground just hours into the mission, the Gehman board found that NASA “declined to have the crew inspect the orbiter for damage, declined to request on-orbit imaging, and ultimately discounted the possibility of a burn-through”—that is, that there might be a hole in the wing’s thermal protection layer through which hot plasma, generated by friction when the shuttle reentered Earth’s atmosphere, could invade the wing and blowtorch it from within. Unaware of any problem, the seven astronauts left orbit on schedule, seventeen days into the mission, cheerfully shooting a last few videos showing the red glow of plasma dancing outside the flight deck windows as they began their descent into the upper atmosphere. Soon thereafter the shuttle came apart, etching epitaphic skywriting across dawn skies from California to Louisiana. A forensic analysis conducted by a Crew Survivability Working Group convened at the Gehman board’s request concluded that the module containing the crew remained intact for approximately twenty-four seconds after the orbiter broke up, during which time it fell from an altitude of approximately 140,000 feet to a little over 100,000 feet before disintegrating.

NASA’s failure to order imaging of the shuttle to look for signs of wing damage while it was in orbit is as inexplicable as it is anguishing. The Air Force has a number of telescopic cameras on Earth that are capable of taking high-resolution pictures of an orbiting shuttle. The cameras’ precise capacities are classified but a conservative estimate, based on Air Force data, is that they make visible an object the size of a golf ball at the shuttle’s distance. The Gehman board estimated that the hole in Columbia‘s wing measured 100 square inches—about the size of a bucket of golf balls. Several shuttle ground team members suggested commissioning images by such cameras. One warned in an e-mail that he and his team would “always have big uncertainties” about the damage “until we get definitive, better, clearer photos of the wing and body underside,” adding, “Can we petition (beg) for outside…assistance?”

The answer was no. Incredibly, it seems that nobody on hand appreciated what the cameras could do—although that much was common knowledge among amateur astronomers and space buffs—and efforts by engineers to find out by contacting the Defense Department directly were scotched by their superiors. On Flight Day Six, one of the NASA officials in charge of the mission, Linda Ham, told the mission management team, which she chaired, that on-orbit imaging was not being pursued because even if it revealed damage, “there is not much we can do about it.” This was not the case; as we shall see, plenty could have been done to attempt a rescue of Columbia‘s crew. But the fact that mission managers “displayed no interest in understanding [the] problem and its implications,” as the Gehman board put it, seems to have resulted from NASA’s prideful reluctance to ask for aid from other agencies, combined with its old habit of downplaying hazards it had survived in the past.

As the reentering shuttle passed over Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque on the morning of February 1, scientists there took a few images of it for their own amusement, using an ancient Macintosh computer and a digital camera coupled to a 3.5-inch Questar—a portable telescope so small that it can be transported as carry-on luggage on a commercial flight. The equipment didn’t work very well and clouds got in the way, but the scientists did manage to take one overexposed photograph when the shuttle was near the horizon. Even this rude image suggested that something was going terribly wrong, but by then it was of course too late. Meanwhile the advanced “Starfire” adaptive-optics telescopes at Kirtland stood idle, NASA officials having neglected to employ them. A week after the crash, Space Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore displayed the Kirtland scientists’ fuzzy photo to reporters at a press conference, offering it as an example of how ground-based imaging wouldn’t have shown anything useful. “If your eye is sharp, maybe you can draw a conclusion,” he said. “I don’t think it’s very revealing.” Watching him on live TV, I was startled to realize that although Dittemore had managed eleven shuttle missions and was immersed in the dreadful business of trying to determine what had doomed the last one, he still didn’t comprehend the contribution that ground-based imaging could have made to Columbia‘s safety.

What might NASA have done to rescue the astronauts, had it recognized the peril they faced? Columbia could not have retreated to the International Space Station—it lacked sufficient fuel to move to the station’s radically different orbit—but an analysis conducted at the Gehman board’s request came up with a list of other options. Here is how things might have been2 :

(1) Responding to launch-film images of the foam impact, NASA promptly obtains high-resolution ground-camera imagery of the orbiting shuttle. If the images show damage or are inconclusive, two Columbia crew members put on spacesuits and go out of the orbiter to get a firsthand look at the wing, taking pictures of it for analysis on the ground. (The strike occurred at a part of the wing too close to the shuttle fuselage for the astronauts on board to see it without first leaving the craft.) Having confirmed that there is a hole on the leading edge of the left wing, the crew adopts a minimum-exertion schedule, canceling the performance of nonessential tasks and sleeping as long as possible to prolong the time they can remain in orbit before their oxygen and CO2-scrubbing supplies run out. These steps can extend the mission to Flight Day 30. It is now Flight Day 5.

(2) The shuttle Atlantis is put on a rush flight-preparation schedule to launch a rescue mission with a skeleton crew consisting of a commander, a pilot, and two astronauts trained in spacewalking. (Twenty-three such astronauts were available at the Kennedy Space Center.) They are advised of the situation, apprised of the danger that a second foam-related launch accident could doom their mission as well, and invited to volunteer. (How many would have volunteered? My guess is that all twenty-three would have volunteered.) NASA estimates that Atlantis could have launched at least five days before Columbia‘s crew ran out of air.

(3) In case Atlantis cannot reach them in time, members of Columbia‘s crew again go out into space, cramming the hole in the wing with tools and pieces of metal and filling it with water, which freezes into ice in the cold vacuum of space. This step, in addition to jettisoning extra weight and adopting a sashay-style reentry flight path to minimize the heating of the left wing, might hold the shuttle together through thermal reentry. Then, at an altitude of around 30,000 feet, the crew could activate their emergency escape system and bail out—since the wing and left landing gear might not hold together on landing—leaving the empty shuttle to crash in a “disposal area” in the Pacific south of Fiji.

(4) Atlantis launches safely, however, and docks within thirty feet of Columbia. Escorted by the two spacewalking astronauts, the Columbia crew crosses over to Atlantis, which returns safely to Earth with all eleven men and women aboard—a mission well within its capacities. Once they are back on Earth, Columbia, which cannot be landed by remote control, is de-orbited and ditched. Seven lives have been saved, at an acceptable level of risk to four others.

NASA now says that when shuttle missions resume next year, a second shuttle will always be kept at the ready in case a rescue is required. That may save lives some day but it does little to reduce the sorrow and shame one feels when considering that NASA could have pulled off the greatest rescue in the history of spaceflight rather than presiding over one of its worst disasters. The officials directly at fault deserve to be held responsible, and have been, but as the Gehman board notes, the crash resulted from “persistent, systemic flaws” in NASA management, and problems of this magnitude cannot be solved just by changing the nameplates on office doors. “Both accidents were ‘failures of foresight’ in which history played a prominent role,” the board concluded. By “history” they meant the dangerous habit of becoming complacent about a persistent hazard. NASA managers knew they had problems with flying foam prior to the Columbia crash—just as, seventeen years earlier, they knew they had problems with the O-rings that held parts of the shuttle together, before an O-ring failure blew up the Challenger.

The board also recommended transformations in NASA’s “culture,” but conceded that “the changes we recommend will be difficult to accomplish—and will be internally resisted.” In other words, don’t hold your breath. If manned spaceflight is going to get substantially safer, the best hope is not a sociological revolution at NASA but to “replace the shuttle as soon as possible” with a new and safer vehicle. Bush didn’t have much choice about axing the shuttle.

2.

But replace it with what, and for what purpose? Bush’s NASA speech set three goals: (1) get the space shuttle flying again and use it to finish construction of the International Space Station, nominally within the next six years; (2) replace the shuttle with a new manned spacecraft, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, within ten years; the CEV will most likely be an Apollo-style capsule rather than a winged space-plane; (3) use the new craft to commence “extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.”

The first goal was uncontroversial for those who accept Bush’s premises. From his point of view, the only real alternative was to halt manned spaceflight altogether before reconstituting it a decade hence for the moon missions, which might well cost more than keeping it going in the interim. But the first goal is also unpromising. The shuttle is already on its way out and the space station has been pointless from the start. Notwithstanding a lot of talk about making perfectly spherical ball-bearings in zero gravity aboard the station or “learning to live and work in space” by being there, the station has never done much except give the shuttle somewhere to go. (Bush pointedly avoided repeating the old hyperbole and instead simply said, bleakly enough, that station astronauts are to study “the long-term effects of space travel on human biology”—something the Russians already did, years ago.) So why pour further tens of billions of dollars into the station? For Bush and many others, national pride is in question, plus the fact that much of the money has already been committed. “We will finish what we have started, we will meet our obligations to our fifteen international partners on this project,” Bush said. Translation: “We’ve bought too much dog food to shoot the dog now.”

Promptly after Bush spoke, NASA canceled all future shuttle missions to the Hubble Space Telescope. Without hands-on servicing to replace its gyroscopes and update other equipment, the space telescope will become unusable by around 2007 and fall out of the sky by 2014. The reason cited by NASA was safety—if shuttle astronauts get in trouble while at Hubble, they cannot go to the International Space Station to await rescue. But flying dozens of missions to the space station is more dangerous than flying just one mission to Hubble, and the presence of a second rescue shuttle at Cape Canaveral further reduces the risk. Some of the shuttle astronauts’ finest hours have been spent repairing and refurbishing Hubble, which ranks among the most productive and popular scientific instruments ever constructed.

Just as I was writing this paragraph, an e-mail came in announcing a new Hubble finding that dark energy, the mysterious antigravity force currently accelerating the cosmic expansion rate, probably isn’t strong enough to tear the universe apart within the next thirty billion years. You don’t have to be a cosmologist to consider that discerning the fate of the universe is more important than measuring bone-marrow changes in space-station astronauts. We can hope that NASA can find the will and a way to save Hubble before it’s too late. The National Academy of Sciences is now reviewing the situation, partly in response to a letter from Admiral Gehman arguing that “only a deep and rich study of the entire gain/risk equation can answer the question of whether an extension of the life of the wonderful Hubble telescope is worth the risks involved.”3

Bush’s second goal, developing a safer spacecraft to replace the shut-tle, makes sense if the new craft has a meaningful mission. Unfortunately its first assignment, as Bush put it, will be “ferrying astronauts and scientists to the Space Station after the shuttle is retired”—a prospect every bit as dismal as it sounds. We’re talking tens of billions of dollars to staff the world’s most expensive medical experiment.

Things get slightly brighter, however, with Bush’s third proposal: to re-open the moon to human exploration. Retrograde as it may seem—haven’t we already been to the moon?—this actually may not be such a bad idea.

If we take a long view, the ultimate goal of manned space exploration is to establish permanent homes for humanity elsewhere in the solar system. Centuries from now we might expect to find exploratory and scientific outposts scattered all the way from here to Saturn, with substantial numbers of people living on Mars and perhaps even Venus—assuming that both planets can be transformed (“terraformed”) to endow them with oceans, breathable atmospheres, and abundant indigenous life.

There are good reasons to want to do this. In addition to providing homo sapiens with an insurance policy—a pan-planetary human species could survive terrestrial disasters, such as global warming or an asteroid impact, that could otherwise doom us—it would open up vast frontiers for exploration, habitation, and exploitation. Some of the more intriguing strategies for establishing a foothold on Mars call for sending explorers who, from the start, go there to stay: the growing Mars colony always keeps enough spacecraft on hand to serve as lifeboats if all or some of the settlers have to bail out, but the idea is to manufacture rocket fuel, grow crops, put down roots, and make a go of it. The moon is an excellent place to develop the technologies and skills required for such an effort. It’s a harsh, airless world, to be sure—tougher than Mars in many respects—but as big as Africa and a lot cheaper to get to than Mars is.

Maintaining a permanent lunar base means, however, that somebody has to keep footing the bills. Unless taxpayers are ready to bear the entire burden, ways must be found to make money on the moon. Safe storage of electronic data is one near-future possibility: the moon will remain untouched by virtually any conceivable terrestrial catastrophe, and streams of electronic data going directly from rooftop antennas to a backup facility on the moon are almost impossible to intercept. Lunar/solar power is another prospect. Worldwide demand for electricity is expected to increase five to ten times by the middle of this century. Unless a clean new power source such as nuclear fusion is soon available, that means choosing between growing pollution, politically unpalatable nuclear fission reactors, or the unlikely spectacle of vast arrays of windmills and solar panels blanketing entire counties. The moon has plenty of empty land where solar panels could be deployed. Preliminary studies indicate that power collected by lunar arrays of such panels could safely be sent to terrestrial collecting stations as low-energy microwave beams. Once nuclear fusion becomes possible, moreover, helium-3, the isotope burned by the cleanest, safest kind of prospective fusion reactor, could be to the moon what gold was to California and oil to Pennsylvania and Texas: helium-3, rare on Earth, is abundant on the moon.4

Tourism is another potential source of revenue, especially if lunar soil proves to contain water ice which could be melted for drinking water and broken down into hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel to ferry tourists from a low orbit around Earth up to the moon. (If the moon turns out to be bone-dry, nuclear rockets might serve this purpose, but bringing water up would cancel out much of the savings.) Meanwhile the high cost of getting from the Earth to low orbit could be avoided by building a space elevator—essentially a cable attached to the ground at the bottom and to a geosynchronous satellite at the top. The satellite would orbit at the same rate the Earth rotates (as do the communications satellites that feed rooftop TV dishes) so the cable would stay put. Electrical elevators would shuttle up and down the cable, carrying people and goods into orbit quickly and inexpensively.

Aside from the cable itself, which would have to be made of a material stronger and lighter than any currently available (carbon nanotubes are promising candidates, as are noncarbon tubes based on tungsten and molybdenum), startup costs are the main obstacle to building a space elevator. You need a big, heavy satellite with a mighty power-generating station. Nobody today could afford to haul such a thing up from Earth, but if the heavy material were brought down from the moon, the project could become profitable. And once a single space elevator was installed, the cost of going anywhere else in the solar system, whether to mine asteroids for precious minerals or farm Mars, would be drastically reduced.

In this sense the moon really could be the gateway to the great beyond. But making money, whether by mining lunar fuel or enticing tourists to zero-gravity space hotels, is the kind of activity best pursued by the private sector, not the federal government—and as Greg Klerkx notes in Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age, NASA has long turned a cold shoulder to private-sector space enthusiasts with profit-making ideas. “The idea of space as an individual frontier [is] anathema to NASA’s way of doing business,” he writes. “When it comes to actually engaging in commercial enterprises, NASA has failed resoundingly.” He quotes Alan Ladwig, a perspicacious NASA veteran, as charging that the space agency views entrepreneurs with deep suspicion. “There were plenty of things you could do from a commercial point of view, but they might end up taking a NASA person’s job,” Ladwig told Klerkx. “That was the perspective.” So long as a lunar base remains exclusively a NASA operation, it is likely to be about as innovative and interesting—and as profitable—as NASA food.

If you take human space exploration seriously, the stage would seem to be set for genuine collaboration between government and private enterprise, in something like the way that the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Homestead Act of 1862, and concessions to the railroad and telegraph industries opened up the American West. Raw meat for a Republican administration, one would think, yet Bush has done nothing to welcome entrepreneurs with a bent for working in space—the sort of people who in prior generations took wagon trains west, wildcatted for oil, or designed and flew early aircraft, and who now are looking upward to the final frontier. Instead his plan, worked up by NASA administrator O’Keefe and the National Security Council with little or no input from the private sector, amounts to more of the same old model, in which space is explored exclusively by federal employees who wear stars and stripes on their sleeves, spending billions and earning next to nothing.

As it has in many other policy matters, White House silence on this score leaves the public guessing whether the administration has no new ideas or prefers not to talk about them.5 My guess is the former. Bush seems to care little about space exploration generally or his own plan in particular. He didn’t even mention it in his State of the Union address, and in any case he knows that it will take years to get going, by which time even a two-term Bush would be out of office.

If indeed we’re in for more of the same, the future of manned spaceflight looks dim. Without the involvement of private visionaries and entrepreneurs, shuttle missions to nowhere will drag on for years, to be followed by an expensive lunar base that threatens to drain resources from NASA’s useful (and blameless) unmanned projects. We could of course abandon manned space exploration altogether, but the cure might be worse than the disease. The NASA budget would most likely shrink to half its current size—anyone who thinks Congress would shift all that money to space science is dreaming—with the surplus going not to relieve hunger or illiteracy but to pay a few weeks’ interest on the national debt.

The question is one of acting sensibly in the short term while keeping our eyes on the potentialities of the future. Trying to plan today how to settle on Mars makes about as much sense as asking Columbus to come up with a way to bring water to Los Angeles. Yet if we cease exploring until we know all the answers, that day will never come. The alternative to blundering ahead with manned spaceflight is that either some other nation or group of nations will eventually colonize the moon and Mars, or nobody will. Either way, as Walt Kelly’s Porkypine mused in another context, it’s a mighty sobering thought.6

  1. 1

    Kevin Spear, “Foam Likely to Hit Next Shuttle,” Orlando Sentinel, posted July 27, 2003.

  2. 2

    In the interest of clarity and economy, this summary omits a few technical qualifications and in some regards goes beyond the report. Full specifics may be found in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, Vol. 1, pp. 173ff., and Vol. 2, Appendix D13.

  3. 3

    The New York Times, March 12, 2004.

  4. 4

    Steven Weinberg, writing in these pages, aptly notes that no self-sustaining nuclear fusion reactor of any kind has yet been built, much less one capable of handling helium-3 (see “The Wrong Stuff,” The New York Review, April 8, 2004). However, I am talking here about prospective lunar profits, decades in the future. It remains to future generations to learn whether fusion power will prove to be viable, as nuclear fission power-generation has been for the past half-century, or will fizzle out, as did hopes for nuclear airplanes and backyard nuclear garbage-disposal units.

  5. 5

    For much the same reason, discerning White House science aims can be as confusing as reading oracle bones. On the one hand, sixty-two of the nation’s top scientists recently signed a declaration accusing the Bush administration of “misrepresenting and suppressing scientific knowledge for political purposes.” On the other, the White House has called for substantial increases in National Science Foundation funding and a $1.6 billion boost to the NASA space science budget by 2009.

  6. 6

    Porkypine: “I been readin’ ‘bout how maybe they is planets peopled by folks with advanced brains. On the other hand, maybe we got the most brains… maybe our intellects is the universe’s most advanced. Either way, it’s a mighty soberin’ thought.” Pogo, July 28, 1973.

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