Citing a safer space shuttle, NASA is widening the astronaut ranks to include a senator and a schoolteacher, and hopes for even more diversity. But private experts criticize the change as reckless, given the innate dangers posed by the winged spaceships. And even NASA’s top safety experts say the agency’s public assertions of improved safety are exaggerated.
NASA officials acknowledge that space travel is dangerous, but they tend to play down the charges and internal disputes, saying that new shuttle crew members will face no undue risks and that, in any case, they will be fully informed of the hazards.
NASA announced Jan. 16 that Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, would fly into orbit in October and that Barbara Morgan, a third-grade teacher in McCall, Idaho, would do so sometime later. It said the announcement signaled the start of a diversification of the astronaut corps, with educators at the head of the line. NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said the move was made possible by substantial safety improvements for the shuttle fleet.
“We have tripled the reliability of the space shuttle since the early ‘90s,” he told reporters at NASA headquarters for the announcement about Glenn.
But in interviews, NASA’s own safety experts said the risk of catastrophe, while diminished, was still roughly 1 chance in 145 for each flight, the same as it was three years ago, when NASA last comprehensively judged the danger. They added that Goldin’s statement and recent NASA public estimates of shuttle risk were misleading.
And private experts said NASA seemed increasingly torn between technical rigor and political showmanship. The gap, they said, appeared to be like the one that existed before the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing six astronauts and a high school teacher, Christa McAuliffe. Morgan was trained to be McAuliffe’s backup for that flight.
“The lessons of Challenger have been lost,” said Diane Vaughan, author of “The Challenger Launch Decision” (University of Chicago Press, 1996) and a sociologist at Boston College. “Space technology is too risky to take senators and Saudi princes and civilians along. So the question is, if the risk hasn’t changed, why has the policy?”
Vaughan said that “this whole thing feeds back into seeking publicity” and boosting NASA budgets, which have declined seven years in a row, to $13.6 billion today from $16.8 billion in 1991.
Joseph J. Trento, an official of the National Security News Service, a private research group in Washington that tracks NASA, said the agency was recklessly toying with civilian lives.
“It’s another publicity stunt,” said Trento, who analyzed the Challenger episode in a book, “Prescription for Disaster” (Crown, 1987). “And it’s fraught with danger,” he said. “This shuttle system is basically the same one we were flying when we lost Challenger.”
NASA and its allies disagree, saying that the shuttles, after more than $5 billion in repairs and improvements, are more reliable than in Challenger’s day, even if they are not nearly as safe as cars, trains or planes. But despite statements by Goldin, a man known for bold acts and pronouncements, some NASA officials tended to play down talk of safety improvements.
“The probability of loss is about the same,” said Frederick D. Gregory, a former astronaut who heads NASA’s safety program. “It’s the uncertainty that’s getting narrower.”
In other words, the complex gear is basically as dangerous as before but experts understand the risk better, allowing them to refine estimates of its reliability.
Gregory added that anyone who became an astronaut would be fully informed of the dangers and could make up his or her own mind whether to fly, a change from the wide ignorance that marked the Challenger era.
Richard D. Blomberg, head of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, an independent body of experts, said the policy switch was fueled more by the shuttle’s improved reputation for on-time performance and fading memories of the Challenger disaster. “The shuttle is what the shuttle is,” he said. “Overnight it hasn’t become infinitely better. But after Challenger, the country wasn’t ready to risk losing another civilian.”
Blomberg said the decision to widen the astronaut corps was like the diversification of combat support troops. “In Vietnam, we would not send women,” he said. “Now we will. Is that because our systems are better or because the view has changed on what is acceptable?”
“We have a magnificent space vehicle, flying since 1981,” he said. “There’s reason to start looking at the full range of possibilities.”
NASA’s corps of 120 astronauts is usually silent on safety issues. But it is apparently reeling with the challenges not only of crew diversification but of Mir, the Russian space station that has endured a fire and a collision.
Last September, NASA’s inspector general warned that Mir’s problems were serious. But Goldin decided to press ahead and send more Americans to the outpost.