Rickety rocket science

Posted: Feb 05, 2003 12:00 AM
Driving cross-country is a lot less dangerous than shuttling in and out of space. But who in their right mind would take a cross-country trip in a car that was over 20 years old? Not many. And yet, our government sent some of our best, brightest and most remarkably credentialed achievers on a globally visible journey to space on an aging vehicle. What could they be thinking? The Columbia exploded at an altitude of about 40 miles, as it was traveling 18 times the speed of sound. Experts are now coming to agree that an unexpected and massive overheating of the shuttle was central to its explosion. It may turn out that one of the 28,000 heat-resistant tiles attached to the shuttle's aluminum exterior broke off after it was struck by loose foam from an external tank during takeoff. In a sense, the underside of the Columbia's 20-year-old chassis came unglued. According to reports, experts have worried about the tendency of the tiles to break off since the earliest days of the shuttle program. Like other shuttles, Columbia had been flying for twice as long as its designers planned. Before its final flight, some no-longer-available parts, initially made in the early 1970s, were replaced with spares found on the Internet auction site eBay, according to an article in the London Times. Seymour Himmel, a former NASA rocket engineer, told the Times, "The chief thing we were concerned about was the aging of the beast." Al Keel, President Reagan's former national security director and the executive director of the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger accident 15 years ago, told me that the space truck Columbia was built with technology from the 1970s and cost $1.7 billion in 1981. Today's replacement cost would be roughly $4 billion. "But it takes money," Keel told me, "and NASA doesn't have the money." Various newspaper reports referred to a 40 percent drop in NASA's budget over the last decade. A chart on the NASA website shows that its budget fell in constant dollars from $15.2 billion in 1994 to $12.8 billion in 2000. President Bush's new budget, which calls for a massive spending increase of nearly $500 million for the space agency, would still leave funding $2 billion below the 1994 level. "This is why a new presidential commission is necessary," Keel told me. "NASA is a national treasure. It needs clear public support and a stable budget-planning process." He's right. Since 1981, there have been two catastrophes out of 112 space-shuttle flights. That's near a 98 percent success rate, which is about the same for unmanned military cargo flights into space. The shuttle survival rate is simply too low. Manned flights should be much more reliable than cargo flights. Few people were especially interested in the Columbia mission before 9 a.m. Saturday morning, when the first indications of a catastrophe were heard on the radio. Yet NASA insiders have been warning for years about the potential for disaster. In 1999, a Columbia launch was delayed by a discovery of a hydrogen leak. Thirty-five hundred wiring defects showed up in an August 2000 Columbia inspection. In October 2000, the 100th shuttle flight was delayed because of a misplaced safety pin and worries over the external tank. Another hydrogen leak in April 2002 caused cancellation of the Atlantis flight. Fuel-line cracks grounded a shuttle launch in August 2002. Today, outside contractors manage and operate most aspects of the space missions. About 90 percent of NASA's budget goes to the private-sector companies, the largest of which is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin called the United Space Alliance. Keel questions whether NASA even has enough left-over budget for first-rate quality control of the private contractors. And as Boeing and Lockheed recontract out most of the work they receive from NASA, it's questionable whether they have sufficient dollars to do the best possible job in the first place. We should continue our space program. If we don't, somebody else will. China is reportedly gearing up its own space program, and Russia is still in the game. But if we're going to do it, we must truly do it -- and we must not compromise our astronauts. They're heroes. And for one sickening moment Saturday morning, millions of Americans were shocked into realizing that the greatest country on the planet had failed miserably to live up to its own high standards. Neither money nor politics must ever be an obstacle to our endeavors in space. The United States is number one in the world, and we should act like it.