While the review board investigating the Columbia disaster still has more work to do, the outlines of the failures have become clear. The board recently issued a “working scenario,” under which a breach in the lower left wing — possibly caused by a piece of foam from the external tank which fell off during liftoff — allowed hot gas to enter the cavity during reentry. That penetration caused a progressive series of failures which culminated in the breakup of Columbia.
Investigators may never know the exact cause of the initial breach. The satellite photos that may have helped assess wing damage were never taken despite repeated requests from dozens of safety personnel. As Adm. Hal Gehman testified before the Senate this week, “there were missed signals going up, and there were missed signals going down.” Putting aside questions of whether or not anything could have been done to save the astronauts (a question the investigation board is now looking into) NASA’s failure to even try for a damage assessment merits a tough reevaluation of the organization’s decisionmaking processes and safety program. Adm. Gehman noted, “The safety organization is, on paper, perfect, but when you bore down a little deeper, you don’t find any ‘there’ there.”
That makes it more difficult to assess whether or not the remaining three shuttles are safe to fly. Rep. Joe Barton, a member of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, said the shuttles will never be safe to fly. That opinion has been seconded by numerous scientists and engineers — perhaps most notably, Max Faget, a pioneer of the shuttle and the director of engineering of human spacecraft for two decades at NASA. The 81-year old recently told The Los Angeles Times that “The bottom line is that the shuttle is too old.”
NASA engineers dispute that notion, but no one knows, and uncertainties will remain even after rigorous testing. In the interim, the only way for astronauts to travel to the half-finished International Space Station (ISS) will be either Russian or Chinese rockets (China’s first manned space launch is expected later this year).
Thus, by what means will the ISS be finished, if at all? NASA’s greatest challenge is not making a final determination of the failures that led to Columbia’s demise, nor is it rejuvenating a safety program that was simply not up to task. It is not even in finding a safer replacement for the shuttle. After all, space travel is an inherently risky enterprise. No amount of planning can account for every contingency, and no amount of preparation can avoid every eventuality.
NASA’s real challenge is determining in which direction the manned program shall go, whether a voyage to Mars, a permanent manned base on the moon, or even an intermediate step, such as a series of manned missions to potentially earth-threatening asteroids.
That decision, and the resolution to see it though, can only come from the top. Several months ago, we called for Mr. Bush to give the space program a tangible target in his next State of the Union address. Now that the fighting in Iraq has finished and the tax cut has passed, Mr. Bush must make the direction of the manned space program a priority.