Accelerated Schedule Causes Safety Concerns
Faced with continued launch delays, and a hard September 2010
deadline for retirement of the shuttle fleet, NASA is scrambling to
play "catch-up" on its obligation to wrap up construction of the
International Space Station -- and has scheduled six shuttle
missions this year to do it.
That would be twice the number of missions completed last
year... and the agency is already handicapped by a one-month-plus
delay in launching Atlantis due to problematic fuel level sensors
in the external fuel tank. As ANN reported, NASA now
aims for a January 24 launch for that orbiter... though it appears
more likely it will be February before Atlantis takes flight.
The mounting schedule pressure is raising concerns that NASA may
have to cut corners in its rush to get all those missions in,
reports The Washington Post.
"This pressure feels so familiar. It was the same before the
Challenger and Columbia disasters... this push to do more with a
spaceship that is inherently unpredictable because it is so
complex," says Duke University professor and former NASA historian
William H. Gerstenmaier has been with the shuttle program since
the beginning, and now serves as NASA's chief of space operations.
He says while the shuttles are now 27 years old, they're actually
safer than ever due to all the accumulated knowledge about how to
So... why the hard deadline? You may thank the White House for
that. In 2004, President Bush called for the retirement of the
shuttle fleet on September 30, 2010 -- so the agency could divert
its efforts to further-flying (and higher-profile) missions to the
moon, and beyond.
Gerstenmaier remains optimistic NASA will be able to do the job,
on-time. "The schedule we've made is very achievable in the big
scheme of things," he said, before adding a disclaimer. "That is,
unless we get some unforeseen problems."
Alas, unforeseen problems have defined the shuttle program since
John Logsdon, a former member of the panel which investigated
the 2003 Columbia disaster is now a space policy analyst at George
Washington University. He tells the Post another shuttle failure
would likely suspend the manned space program for years, and must
therefore be avoided at all costs. Somewhat contradictory, however,
Logsdon wants NASA to wrap up the shuttle program, post haste.
"Every time we launch a shuttle, we risk the future of the human
space flight program," he said. "The sooner we stop flying this
risky vehicle, the better it is for the program."