Could it happen again? Without a doubt, experts agree, though NASA says the likelihood of catastrophe is less today than on that icy morning a decade ago when the space shuttle Challenger, 73 seconds into its flight, erupted in a ball of flame that killed seven people.
Like the owner of a costly but temperamental car who keeps trying to make do, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has invested more than $5 billion since the accident to rebuild the nation’s fleet of winged spaceships and enhance the safety of hundreds of parts and systems, including the flawed engine and its leaky seal that doomed Challenger. And it has successfully flown 49 shuttle missions since then, no small accomplishment.
Even so, NASA officials see the risk of catastrophe as roughly 1 in 145 missions for each ship and worry that another disaster is almost inevitable. The aging fleet of four shuttles is to continue flying its wide range of science research missions for at least 10 years and become the central link to an international space outpost that is a pillar of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy. Orbital construction of the sprawling outpost is to start next year, with astronaut crews inhabiting it from 1998 to at least 2012.
Given the stakes, NASA is laboring to improve the shuttles still further and is planning a new generation of reusable spaceships meant to debut around 2005 that would be cheaper and safer to fly.
But experts inside and outside the space agency warn that the current risks are greater than generally assumed. Declining budgets and the political war over the federal deficit, they say, threaten to erode safety and precipitate another calamity, despite all efforts to the contrary.
“NASA is again experiencing the economic strain that prevailed at the time of the disaster,” said Diane Vaughan, author of “The Challenger Launch Decision,” a new book published by the University of Chicago Press.
“Few of the people in top NASA administrative positions exposed to the lessons of the Challenger tragedy are still there,” Vaughan said. “The new leaders stress safety, but they are fighting for dollars and making budget cuts.”
Daniel S. Goldin, NASA’s administrator for nearly four years, has led a crusade to do things cheaper, smaller, faster and better, as he puts it. And breaking with predecessors, he has gone out of his way to highlight the possibility of astronaut loss, trying to prepare the nation for the worst even while insisting on a policy of cutting no corners.
“Safety is the highest priority,” he said in a statement prepared for the disaster’s 10th anniversary. “But human beings have always taken great risks to reap great rewards.” Space flight, Goldin emphasized, “is inherently dangerous and every member of the NASA team understands those risks.”
One imponderable is the political repercussions of another disaster, with experts split on whether the shuttles would survive to fly again or be retired as dangerously obsolete.
“I think we’re over the period of political vulnerability, where an accident would pull the plug,” said Lori B. Garver, executive director of the National Space Society, a private group in Washington that promotes space exploration.
Another imponderable is how deep budget knives might cut. In the past five years, the shuttle’s annual budget has dropped from more than $4 billion to $3 billion and the main contractor work force has shrunk from 34,000 to 24,000 employees, even while the spaceships do roughly the same work, flying seven or eight times annually. In the next few years, plans call for the program’s budget and ranks to shrink an additional 10 percent, and perhaps much more.
Jose Garcia, a veteran manager at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Challenger was launched, wrote an open letter to President Clinton in August to warn that the dollar squeeze was eviscerating the launching team and hastening another disaster.
“In their misguided attempt to economize,” he said, “they have lost sight of what keeps the shuttle safe.”
But many experts see the astronomical costs of running the nation’s $65 billion fleet of shuttles as a drag on innovation at NASA, a faded star whose luster is just starting to return.
Bryan D. O’Connor, director of the shuttle program at NASA headquarters in Washington and a former astronaut, said the pressures were tolerable and that the winged spaceships were safer than ever before because of repairs as well as intangibles, like better communication among team members.
But he added that the federal cost-cutting drive and the political war surrounding it were major distractions. All last week, NASA workers were unsure whether their agency would be financed and whether they would be back at work on Monday.
“There’s pressure across the whole government,” O’Connor said in an interview last week. “We’re doing our part. We’re working hard. But we also need to keep our priorities in mind, the first of which is safety. And on that score I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”
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