Shuttle schedule pressure: before and after Columbia

Before the Columbia disaster, NASA was under intense schedule pressure to complete the International Space Station. Today they find themselves struggling to fly an aging and fragile space shuttle that has been placed squarely in the critical path for the new exploration vision. Two recent newspaper articles provide a sobering comparison of NASA’s actions then and now.

Before Columbia, NASA cut corners to make the schedule, as this Orlando Sentinel article shows. When some range safety equipment failed during the countdown to a 2002 shuttle launch, they chose to fly anyway, in violation of their own safety rules.

Since Columbia, NASA is the first to loudly proclaim that their safety culture has changed. I believe that they do genuinely want to make things safer, but I think it’s possible to see the same external factors driving the same aberrant behaviors of the past. I’m deeply wary of their loud protestations that schedule pressure is no longer a factor.

NASA is now under pressure to get the station finished and retire the shuttle as soon as possible, so that they can move on with the rest of the Vision for Space Exploration. They are doubly under pressure because of over-runs in the shuttle budget; if they can’t get it retired soon, it’s going to eat all the money needed for its replacement, the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

This Florida Today article shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. NASA bent its own rules for last year’s return to flight launch, despite all their hard-learned lessons. When an engineering report showed that the changes to the External Tank were not sufficient to guarantee minimal foam loss, they launched anyway. Despite the protestations of engineers who were convinced that the foam in the PAL ramp area might still came off.

The engineers were right; the foam came off, and fortunately NASA got away with another near-miss rather than another disaster.

As much as NASA managers talk about ‘listening to the hardware,’ the message doesn’t seem to be getting through. Right now they are processing another orbiter for launch, this time using an external tank with the PAL ramp foam removed. But aerodynamics work is needed to determine whether or not that’s a safe configuration to fly in, and that work is not complete. It’s reasonable to continue work at this point – they are making a bet that the aerodynamic work will come back clear. If it does, they have saved themselves some time. If it doesn’t? We’ve been there before, with the very last launch, and the decision then was to change the rule rather than comply with it, and fly anyway. Schedule pressure is backing NASA into the corner of making that same bad choice again.

The schedule and the Shuttle are a classic case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Something has got to give.

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