Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.4

October 23, 2003


NASA engineer says society more risk averse than before

By Sylvain Comeau

Disasters like the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia are inevitable, and a risk that nations must take to accomplish the goal of space exploration, NASA engineer Scott Higginbotham said in a recent Concordia lecture.

Last February, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing seven astronauts on board.

The disaster was a serious blow to the U.S. space program, and put new manned space missions on hold.

Higginbotham, Mission Manager at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, spoke candidly on October 8 about the accident and the fallout felt at NASA.

“This is one of those cases in which hindsight is 20/20. I don’t know how loudly they complained or voiced their concern before the accident, but since then, there have been people coming out of the woodwork saying ‘I told you that was a problem.’ It’s hard to tell how much of that is real.”

Last summer, investigators determined that the accident was caused by the loosening of a piece of foam insulation from an external fuel tank. The insulation hit and damaged a heat shield on a wing, causing the shuttle to break apart upon reentry to the earth’s atmosphere. Higginbotham noted that while some heads did roll at NASA after the Columbia was lost, the accident was more bad luck than bad planning.

“In my opinion, we are overreacting now. We had been flying that vehicle successfully for a lot of years, and yes, we can improve it. We can redesign it so the foam will not come off again. We can add all this new inspection and repair capability, and wring our hands over safety issues for over a year. But the reality is that the accident was a situation in which a lot of bad things lined up. Occasionally, that happens.”

Higginbotham says that, despite numerous computer simulations and past experience, any time a manned flight is launched, “it is a test program, and it will always be one. We’ve got 2.5 million parts in the shuttle system – all built by the lowest bidder – and we’re travelling in one of the most extreme environments you can imagine. We are expending a huge amount of energy to put this vehicle into space; we’re pushing our technology right to the edge, in terms of extreme environments, velocity, heat. So of course it’s a test program. It’s exploration. We are still in our infancy in space exploration.”

Higginbotham contends that North American society has become so allergic to risk that it has a hard time grappling with the inherent challenges of space exploration.

“U.S. society – maybe the whole world – has become incredibly risk averse. We go fight a war in 1940 and we lose millions of people, but the result was worth it in the end. We go to another place these days, and if two people get shot, (the reaction is) ‘Oh my gosh. We need to pull out now’. Not to belittle human life – which is absolutely precious – but our perspective of risk has totally changed. The pandemonium after the accident occurred was because (NASA missions) are a symbol of the country.”

No matter how much testing and planning is involved, there will never be any guarantees of success, he said.

“I expect these kinds of things to happen. It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen again, it’s when. It will happen again; it’ll be something else that we didn’t think about that will get us, or something we couldn’t have prevented. There are certain systems on the vehicle that are critical ones, which means that if one system fails, you’re dead. So it will happen again.”

NASA currently has three space shuttles left, all of which are grounded for the moment. Higginbotham hopes to see them back in the air soon.

“I hope we get back on the horse that threw us. I hope we get flying again, get back to what we are supposed to be doing, which is exploring and doing things that are hard. Because they are hard to do. And we have to accept that.”

In the long run, the key to better funding and a revived public interest in space exploration is opening up access to the final frontier.

“Right now, only a tiny elite has access to space…and U.S. regulations prohibit any sort of space tourism, even by wealthy individuals who could pay a lot to go up into space. That has to change. The key will be reducing the cost of sending vessels into space, which is currently $10,000 per pound.”

If technology allows costs to come down, “I can see all kinds of entrepreneurs getting into space tourism, once they see there is money to be made. If the private sector gets involved, we will have a new boom in space exploration.”

Higginbotham’s lecture was part of a one-day conference by the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute (Quebec Branch).