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Friday, April 22, 2005

NASA relaxes safety rules for Shuttle

shuttle.jpg

Death trap.

I realize that here in Space City, USA, the shuttle program is sacrosanct. That's probably why I caught hell a while back for criticizing the program's record of wasteful spending and unprecedented astronaut-killing. Well get ready for more criticism, rocket boys. After the Columbia disaster, an independent panel established higher safety standards for manned space flight, and NASA was having a difficult time meeting those standards. So did the space agency suspend the program until the safety kinks were worked out? Nope. They just fudged the numbers:

Documents that had been revealed earlier showed that NASA was struggling to meet safety goals set by the independent board that investigated the Columbia accident. The new documents suggest that the agency is looking for ways to justify returning to flight even if it cannot fully meet those recommendations. The documents, by engineers and managers for the space agency, show at least three changes in the statistical methods used in assessing the risks of debris like ice and insulating foam striking the shuttle during the launching. Lesser standards must be used to support accepting the risks of flight, one presentation states, "because we cannot meet" the traditional standards.
But Professor Czysz, who spent some 30 years with McDonnell Douglas, a NASA contractor, compared the statistical shifts to moving the goal posts at a football game. "I was amazed at how they were adjusting every test to make it come out right," he said.
This is just appalling. Unfortunately, I don't expect much improvement from NASA. Former astronaut Jim Wetherbee is pessimistic, but he's probably right:
He said work must continue to make the shuttle safer. "You can't simply accept lower standards and decide to go fly," he said. "You must do something else to earn the privilege," with further redesign to fix the debris problem and to toughen the leading edges. But that it is not likely, he said. "You know what's going to happen? They'll have no problem on this flight or the next flight," he said, and the issue "won't be on the front burner any more. We'll forget about it."

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am not against the space program. But it looks to me that standards have fallen. This country didn't lose an astronaut during flight until the Space Shuttle. In the 60's, NASA personnel played golf on the moon. That's pretty impressive. Now we can't put a schoolteacher or an ant farm into orbit without incinerating seven people.

UPDATE: Whoops. I dropped the ball on this one. Alan Shepard didn't hit a golf ball on the moon until 1971. Sorry.

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