Orlando Sentinel: NASA’s Culture Kept Safety from Forefront by Richard C. Cook
The shuttle was to be a “space truck” that would be used for every conceivable scientific, commercial and military purpose. By the time of the Reagan administration, the lines were confused even further by decisions to use the shuttle as a test platform for weapons testing under the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” program.
The investigations of the Challenger disaster exposed an organizational culture at NASA so influenced by politics, schedule exigencies and managerial careerism that it could never exert itself to the utmost to protect the human lives at stake. When Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, the investigative report was eerily similar.
By then, however, the public had largely lost interest in the manned space program, even as the private sector and the Russian space agency were dabbling in space tourism, where curious millionaires would be treated to a joy ride for astronomical fares.
After 2011 there will be no more space shuttle. In a stunning reversal, the massive Constellation return-to-the-moon program embarked on by the George W. Bush presidency was excluded from President Obama’s 2011 budget and is likely slated for oblivion.
There are few champions to defend Constellation other than the military-industrial complex and their congressional allies, partly because the ultimate goal of a manned journey to Mars has never seemed realistic or worth the price. Constellation also bound NASA’s future to perpetuation of the primitive launch technology of explosive rocketry vs. major investments in more exotic but benign systems like antigravity or electromagnetism.
Constellation — which former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin unfortunately referred to as “Apollo on steroids” — was also viewed by some critics as a thinly-disguised attempt to establish lunar military bases as part of a latter-day space arms race.
Is America lost in space? So it would seem. The heady days of the U.S. manned space program may be history, as veterans of the U.S. astronaut corps have gone public to point out. From a long-term historical perspective, the Challenger disaster may someday be viewed as the beginning of that decline.
Has America forgotten its aspiration to become a space-faring nation? Can those days be brought back by a country that has given away its manufacturing prowess to foreign competitors like China, and that has been devastated by two decades of economic turmoil?
Only time will tell. One thing is certain: A new vision of the place of mankind in the immensity of space is sorely needed.
Richard C. Cook is a former NASA budget analyst who, in 1985, warned the agency that problems with the O-ring seals in solid rocket boosters could cause a “catastrophic” failure during launch. After the Challenger disaster, he leaked those documents to The New York Times, which became a turning point in the accident investigation. Cook is an author and consultant living in Roanoke, Va. His book “Challenger Revealed” was published in 2007.