Report Flags Safety Issues in Shuttle and Space Station Programs

Auniversity-based review of astronaut safety has flagged issues, concerns, andhas suggested safety enhancements for the space shuttle and International SpaceStation programs.

Thewide-ranging report is targeted at making human space travel less hazardous,calling for a shut down of the space shuttle program as soon as possible andlimiting some aspects of International Space Station construction.

TitledSpace Safety Report: Vulnerabilities and Risk Reduction InU.S. Human Space Flight Programs the independent assessment was prepared by theSpace and Advanced Communications Research Institute (SACRI) of GeorgeWashington (GW) University in Washington, D.C. The just-issued researchreport was conducted for the Space Shuttle Children's Fund under a two year$300,000 grant.

Thelengthy, 8-section interdisciplinary academic study represents a combinedcumulative effort by a dozen faculty and graduate students, undertaken during2004 into early 2005, delving into human space flight safety in the past,present and into the future.

Leadinvestigator for the space safety report is Joseph Pelton,a research professor with the Institute for Applied Space Research at the George Washington University. "We thinkthere are ways of improving astronaut safety and saving the taxpayers asignificant amount of money," Pelton told

"Thebig issue here is...does NASA have a program that gets the support of the personon the street? Is anyone trying to develop a fresh look at where we arenow...because now is a very good time for stock taking," Peltonsaid.

Concerns andpotential risks

Thereport takes a look at the management, technical and operational aspects of allNASA astronaut-related programs, sharply focusing on the space shuttle program,the International Space Station, and various human spacecraft and escapevehicles that have been initiated by NASA within the past fifteen years.

Aspart of its assessment the team reviewed the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV),along with the new private entrepreneurial programs to develop human access tospace.

Whilesaluting NASA's efforts stemming from the Columbia Accident InvestigationBoard's (CAIB) recommendations following the loss of Columbia and its crew onFebruary 1, 2003, the GW study team found "both concerns and potential risks"that may be of importance, even after the recommendations of the CAIB have beenimplemented.

"Ourreport is indeed a call to action to work toward retiring as soon as feasiblethe aging shuttle fleet for human space flight, i.e. before 2010 if possible."Furthermore, the report explains, from a safety perspective the GW study teambelieves that 30 or more additional launches of the shuttle system with a fullcrew represent "an increasingly unacceptable risk for an aging system" that mayhave something like a 1-in-50 to 1-in-60 chance of a 'category one' failurewith every launch.

InNASA terms, a "Criticality 1" failure could result in loss of vehicle, loss ofcrew.

Heavy lifting

Amongkey findings, the GW study team reports:

  • A replacement crew vehicle system for the shuttle should be developed as soon as possible. Any financial benefits resulting from shutting down of the shuttle at a somewhat earlier date should be reinvested in the earlier development of the replacement vehicle or other system requirements of President Bush's "Moon, Mars and Beyond" space vision.
  • In general, robotically controlled cargo vehicles should in the future do the heavy lifting into space. Doing so minimizes astronaut risk. Specially designed crew vehicles should fly separately or in tandem with cargo vehicles and should provide a "full envelope" - all phases of flight -- escape mode for the crew.
  • Serious consideration should be given to the feasibility of converting and operating one or more of the orbiters as a "robotic" cargo vehicle. This could reduce risk to astronauts on missions where crews were not essential and increase cargo lift capability.
  • Explore reducing the number of remaining flights for the shuttle by limiting some aspects of International Space Station construction. This should be considered in concert with the international partners and should not involve reduction of flights related to major international subsystems, specifically European and Japanese elements.
  • Evolution to launch systems that use new technology such as ion engines, tethers, or electrical and nuclear propulsion systems instead of "chemical explosions" may represent the key to providing safer and more reliable access to space in the future.

Extended safehaven

Thereport underscores the lack of an effective escape capability from theInternational Space Station (ISS) or the ability to use the ISS as an extendedsafe haven when the Shuttle is not available - tagging this fact as a "majorconcern".

Toaddress this issue, the study team calls for re-activation of NASA's scuttledX-38 lifeboat program or obtaining of U.S. legislative authority andfunding to buy additional Russian-supplied Soyuz vehicles - the current modelas well as the expanded crew-carrying design now being touted by Russian spacedesigners.

TheGW report points to the newly-formed International Association for theAdvancement of Space Safety as a way to cut across national boundaries andprovide for a more integrated ISS operational process for safety and emergencyprocedures. This association was formed last year and is dedicated tofurthering international cooperation and scientific advancement in the field ofspace systems safety. The first meeting of the group is being held this comingOctober in Nice, France.

Historicallessons for the future

Currentplans by NASA to develop the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) are also reviewedby the GW study team. The CEV is central to moving explorers beyond low Earthorbit, back to the Moon, to Mars and other destinations.

"Itis important that historical lessons from the shuttle be learned and applied tofuture planning," the report notes. Key aspects in this regard -- specificallypointing to the Crew Exploration Vehicle -- include: don't combine too manymissions and capabilities; ensure the ongoing infusion of new technology;provide complete launch-to-land escape capability; and seek simplicity of design,operation and retrofit of certain systems.

Plantinga highly-reliable CEV on top of a launch vehicle that is not as highly ratedcould still represent a "questionable" system, the study suggests.

Cashing in onentrepreneurial capital

Studyleader, Pelton, said there was "an astonishing degreeof agreement" among those questioned by the team -- including NASA officials,ex-NASA officials, astronauts, entrepreneurs - about the idea of letting newprivate space initiatives bloom.

Intaking a look at private space initiatives, the study appraises newhuman-carrying space capabilities, space tourism and even private "spacehabs" that are moving forward in response to "prizeawards". The study team notes that there is the specter of new "entrepreneurialcapital" and new regulatory authority provided to the Federal AviationAdministration in this arena.

Thestudy contends there are "new paradigms" with regard to "private" astronautsand even approaches to passenger liability, insurance, and risk assessment."This may offer NASA new opportunities in the future. It may eventually alsoallow NASA's 'manned space and astronaut' programs to work in parallel orcompetition with private ventures. This may not reduce risk but neverthelesshelp redefine 'public' and 'private' safety definitions and accepted standardsfor safety performance."

Asfor the longer-term future of astronaut safety, developing the safesttransportation systems may not be the greatest challenge, the study teamreports. Instead the prime issues may relate to protecting astronauts in spacefrom debris, micro-meteorites, comets, radiation, zero and/or low gravityenvironments, and thus a move toward the more difficult aim of long-termsurvival in space.

Spaceexploration: not risk-free

"Explorationis one of the hallmark characteristics of a dynamic civilization," the GW studyconcludes. "From Lewis and Clark's travels to the first Moon landing, thiswillingness to define and explore new frontiers is a basic American trait. Weknow that the exploration of space by humans is not risk-free. Nor will majorrisks soon be eliminated. Yet, we think that this report, if considered andacted on, can help to make future space exploration and travel safer."

Pelton said that theChallenger accident in 1986 should have spurred a rethink of the space program,both in terms of moving toward a shuttle replacement and a more modularizedspace station for easier construction in times of shuttle groundings.

"Interms of grounding the shuttle, we've lost more than 5 years now afterChallenger and now Columbia.Essentially, we've been twiddling our thumbs so to speak," Peltonsaid.

Thefinal report has not as yet been briefed to NASA, Peltonsaid, but added that he would embrace an invitation to discuss its findingswith the new NASA Administrator, as well as Congress.

"Somepeople do say NASA is broken and can't be fixed. I don't believe that," Pelton said. "There are reasonable suggestions of thingsthat can be done without totally taking a sledge hammer to everything that theyare trying to do."

TheGW report was commissioned by the Space Shuttle Children's Fund. According to alink provided to their web site, the non-profit, tax exempt Fund was founded onthe day after the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy in 1986. It was established"to provide for the health, education, and support of the children of theastronauts who perished in the Challenger tragedy and of astronauts who mightperish in the future while involved actively in participating in spaceexploration and travel conducted under the auspices of NASA."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.