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How NASA Became Massively Dysfunctional

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been celebrating its 50th anniversary by doing what it does best: public relations puffery.


In recent weeks, the agency issued a slick, 215-page publication attributing success after success "benefiting society" to itself. Spinoff: 50 Years of NASA-Derived Technologies (1958-2008) blows the NASA horn for purportedly making enormous contributions to: highway safety, "improved" radial tires, land-mine removal, memory foam, enriched baby food, portable cordless vacuums, artificial limbs, aircraft anti-icing systems, and on and on. About all NASA doesn’t take credit for is curing the common cold.

But in fact, despite the usual NASA spin, the agency 50 years after its formation is in a huge mess -- as is the U.S. space program it administers.

On the most recent NASA mission, last month’s shuttle trip to the International Space Station, a tool bag containing $100,000 in equipment floated away during a space walk. (Why did a NASA tool bag cost $100,000? The grease guns and scrapers were "specialized hardware that had to be fabricated," said a NASA PR person.) "Lost in Space" was a common headline for the loss.

That sums up NASA now.

The shuttle is about to be "retired" -- and for good reason. "In light of the knowledge gained since the loss of Columbia, we believe we have about 1 chance in 80 of losing a crew on any single shuttle launch," NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said in a column he wrote for Space News published Oct. 20.

"If we were to conduct 10 additional launches prior to retiring the shuttle, we would incur a risk of about 1 chance in 8 that another shuttle crew would be lost at some point in the sequence," said Griffin. "These are sobering odds, one reason the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended replacing the shuttle as soon as possible."

The Bush administration and NASA have planned an end to the shuttle program in 2010 and, in 2015, having manned space flights resume with what NASA calls its Constellation program. This consists of a rocket called the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle and a capsule to sit on top of it called the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, in which astronauts would ride.

Between 2010 and 2015, at the earliest, the only way U.S. astronauts would be able to go up into space is as paying passengers on Russian rockets going to and from the International Space Station (a $10 billion project that has now ballooned in cost to $100 billion, most of that U.S. tax money).

And as for money, "Over $7 billion in contracts has already been awarded -- and nearly $230 billion is estimated to be ultimately spent over the next two decades" on the Constellation program, the Government Accountability Office said in an April report. But whether the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule will fly in 2015, or at all, as currently designed, remains to be seen.

"Computer modeling is showing that thrust oscillation within the first stage of the Ares I could cause excessive vibration throughout the Ares I and Orion," said the GAO report. This "could create a risk of hardware failure and loss of vehicle control." In other words, there might be violent shaking at liftoff that could doom the spacecraft. Also, said the GAO, the Ares I rocket might not have enough power to reach orbit. In addition, the GAO said NASA acknowledges that "at this time, existing test facilities are insufficient to adequately test the Ares I and Orion systems."

GAO said of the Ares I and Orion getting off the ground in 2015: "There are considerable unknowns as to whether NASA’s plans for these vehicles can be executed within schedule goals."

Compounding this is news reported in October by the Orlando Sentinel -- based on reviews of NASA documents and internal studies and interviews with more than a dozen engineers, technicians and NASA officials involved in the project -- that NASA is concerned that Ares I could crash into the launch tower during liftoff because of "liftoff drift." The Sentinel said the ignition of the rocket’s solid-fuel engine is seen as making it "jump" sideways on the launch pad.

"Bit by bit, the new rocket ship that is supposed to blast America into the second Space Age and return astronauts to the moon appears to be coming undone," began the Sentinel article. It quoted a NASA contractor as saying, "I get the impression that things are quickly going from bad to worse to unrecoverable."

The article quoted Jeff Finckenor, a NASA engineer who quit the Ares I endeavor in September in frustration over the way the program is being managed: "At the highest levels of the agency, there seems to be a belief that you can mandate reality, followed by a refusal to accept any information that runs counter to that mandate."

That’s an old and consistent criticism of NASA. It was forcefully made by Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, a member of a presidential commission that investigated the 1986 disintegration after launch of the space shuttle Challenger. The Challenger, Feynman stressed, should not have been launched on such a cold morning because the low temperature caused an O-ring to become inflexible -- and he demonstrated this by publicly dropping a rubber ring into a glass of cold water.

"Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality," wrote Feynman in the commission’s final report. "NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources. For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

Seventeen years later, with the loss of another seven astronauts in the breakup of Columbia as it tried to return to earth, there was the same kind of criticism of NASA by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

"The NASA organizational culture has as much to do with this accident as the foam," said the board, referring to the chunk of foam that broke off on liftoff, causing damage to the thermal protection system on a wing of the shuttle. "For both accidents [Challenger and Columbia], there were moments when management definitions of risk might have been reversed were it not for the many missing signals -- an absence of trend analysis, imagery data not obtained, concerns not voiced, information overlooked or dropped," it said. Lessons learned in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster were forgotten or ignored, the board found.

"Based on NASA’s history of ignoring external recommendations," the report declared, "or making improvements that atrophy with time, the board has no confidence that the space shuttle can be operated safely for more than a few years based solely on renewed post-accident vigilance."

The plan to go to a rocket was the brainchild of Griffin. As head of the Space Department at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, he "had written a scholarly paper proposing a rocket design similar to the Ares I," the Sentinel has noted. In 2005, he was appointed NASA administrator by President George W. Bush, and "within months, he organized a study that passed over other proven rockets and chose the Ares I as safe, simple and relatively inexpensive because it used lots of parts from the shuttle."

Meanwhile, Griffin doesn’t want to take the blame for the at least five-year gap in the United States being able to send astronauts into space. In an August e-mail to high NASA officials that was leaked, he said: "Exactly as I predicted, events have unfolded in a way that makes it clear how unwise it was for the U.S. to adopt a policy of deliberate dependence upon another power for access to ISS. In a rational world, we would have been allowed to pick a shuttle retirement date to be consistent with Ares/Orion availability, we would have been asked to deploy Ares/Orion as soon as possible (rather than 'not later than 2014') and we would have been provided the necessary budget to make it so."

"My guess," he said, "is that there is going to be a lengthy period with no U.S. crew on ISS. No additional money of significance is going to be provided to accelerate Orion/Ares, and even if it were, at this point we can’t get there earlier than 2014.

"My own view is about as pessimistic as it is possible to be."

Also, Griffin has begun fighting with the incoming Barack Obama administration. The Sentinel reported on Dec. 10 that Griffin "is not cooperating with President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, is obstructing its efforts to get information and has told its leader that she is 'not qualified' to judge his rocket program."

What Obama will do about NASA remains to be seen. In a March campaign stop in Wyoming, he commented that "NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration." He will most likely name a new NASA administrator.

In any event, there will be major impacts NASA-wide, caused by the five-year hiatus and resulting layoffs and loss of experienced employees.

"The Failure of NASA: And A Way Out" is the title of an essay by former NASA astronaut Philip K. Chapman, which appeared in a 2005 Space Daily issue. He wrote:

"In 1969, we landed on the moon, but now we cannot leave low-earth orbit. NASA claimed the shuttle would be 15 times cheaper to fly (per pounds of payload) than the Saturn vehicles used in Apollo, but it is actually three times more expensive. The average cost of each flight is a staggering $760 million. After a mission, the time required to prepare a shuttle for the next flight was supposed to be less than two weeks, but in practice, tens of thousand of technicians spend three to six months rebuilding each ‘reusable’ shuttle after every flight. Worst of all, the shuttle is a needlessly complex, fragile and dangerous vehicle, which has killed 14 astronauts so far."

"First of all," stated Chapman, "we must recognize that NASA has bungled human space flight. … The only viable solution is a new federal organization."

I’ve had my own experiences with NASA. After learning in 1985 of plans to send a plutonium-fueled space probe up on a shuttle -- indeed, that was to be Challenger’s next mission in 1986 -- I attempted to use the Freedom of Information Act to get information on the consequences of an accident in which the plutonium was dispersed. NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy stonewalled for nearly a year, finally providing me with reports claiming the likelihood of a catastrophic shuttle accident was 1-in-100,000 -- a figure promptly reduced to 1-in-76 after the Challenger exploded.

I wrote two books and did several television documentaries involving NASA and its use of nuclear power in space -- encountering a defensive and closed bureaucracy.

Through the years, I have been interviewed numerous times on radio and television about my investigations into NASA, and NASA has consistently refused to provide anyone to face me. I found NASA an agency with a culture that at all costs avoids questions and challenges -- internal and external..

A leading critic of NASA, Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, sees as central to the NASA situation it being controlled by the military since its establishment in 1958.

"The civilian side was always a cover," he charges. "Today, NASA readily admits that everything they do, every mission they fly, is 'dual use,’ meaning they are doing both military and civilian technology development at the same time."

For years NASA has been involved with the military in the development of space weapons "to give the U.S. 'control and domination' of the heavens with our tax dollars. The aerospace industry brags that Star Wars will be the largest industrial project in the history of the planet."

This has all warped what was supposed to be a civilian agency.

"The nation is in a crisis, and we can't afford a new arms race in space," says Gagnon. "When does the Congress stop funneling our hard-earned tax dollars into the preparation for war in space?"

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