Sunday, December 28, 2008

How NASA Became Massively Dysfunctional

By Karl Grossman, CounterPunch. Posted December 26, 2008.

"At the highest levels of the agency, there seems to be a belief that you can mandate reality ..."

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."


See more stories tagged with: nasa, space program, orion

Karl Grossman is professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury and author of books involving NASA, including The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet and writer and narrator of television programs among them "Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens" (

No comments: