NASA’s Safety Program
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the U. S. government agency responsible for the development of advanced aviation and space technology and for space exploration. It is an independent civilian agency responsible directly to the president. NASA’s roots go back to 1914, when Smithsonian Institution secretary Charles D. Wolcott argued that a federal agency was needed to stimulate the growth of American aeronautics, which was then lagging behind European developments. The recognition of this deficiency led to the creation in 1915 of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
In 1917, NACA opened its first research center, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, located in Hampton, Va. (Launius 55). It was followed in 1941 by the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory near Palo Alto, California, and in 1942 by the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory at Cleveland, Ohio. These are now named the Langley, Ames, and Lewis Research Centers (Launius 56). The agency’s management and quality-control procedures came under severe criticism, however, when the destruction of the Shuttle Challenger during launch in 1986 caused NASA’s first mission fatalities.
The resulting delay in its programs lasted until September 1988, when Shuttle flights resumed (Launius 109). NASA is more than just a space administration; it shows itself everyday in the world although at first it might not be apparent. There are not many people that know the variety of what it has brought to everyday life. NASA is not limited to just aerospace technology. The three main fields of development have been medical, environmental and consumer products. Each field is equally important to technological development. NASA’s space exploration is essential for the advancement of technology on Earth (Shipman 6).
One of the first discoveries made by early Earth satellites was that an unexpectedly high number of charged particles were trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field. Soviet instruments had earlier detected hints of this, but it was the U. S. Explorer 1 of NASA that helped determine what the Earth is encircled by what are now known as the Van Allen Radiation Belts (named for the scientist who designed the instruments aboard Explorer 1 and properly interpreted the readings. Other characteristics of the space environment, some anticipated and some unexpected, were also experienced by these early probes.
Such characteristics include a very hard, that is, relatively very pure, vacuum, so-called zero gravity, high solar illumination levels, radiation, and micrometeorite hazards (Shipman 33). The vacuum conditions encountered in space required the encapsulation of apparatuses and passengers in a space vehicle, or else the special and expensive design of equipment that could work without an air environment. The cooling of electronics systems became a problem, and moving parts required special lubricating systems because they otherwise tended to stick together when operating in space (Shipman 38).
Unfiltered solar radiation can cause illuminated portions of a spacecraft to rise to high temperatures. Meanwhile, shaded portions of the craft will radiate their warmth into space and cool below the freezing point of common fluids such as water and storable rocket fuels. All such fluid containers and lines are commonly equipped by NASA with electrical heaters, while overall temperatures are moderated by rotating the spacecraft along an axis perpendicular to the spacecraft-Sun line. Unmanned spacecraft to the inner planets must be equipped with parasols to reflect away unwanted solar heat (Shipman 38).
Radiation effects on NASA’s spaceflights also took some time to appreciate. Satellites in LEO are protected by he magnetosphere from solar charged particles and from a large percentage of the cosmic rays arriving from outer space. Vehicles operating at GEO or on interplanetary missions, however, receive the full force of these radiations (Shipman 38). A space version of static electricity has built up on other space vehicles during solar storms, resulting in electrical sparks that caused severe problems in onboard electronics. Redesign of such systems has reduced the effects of these influences (Shipman 39).
The danger from micrometeorites, on the other hand, had proved to be slight. Although numerous impacts have been recorded, and on at least one occasion, actually heard by an orbiting crew of NASA. No spacecraft is known to have been seriously damaged by such particles. Debris from other artificial satellites appears to be increasing as a significant danger, however, and one Soviet satellite may actually have been destroyed by such a collision with space junk (Shipman 39). For many years, the United States has had a wide range of launch vehicles at its disposal for various space programs.
By the late 1970s, however, NASA planning had come to concentrate on the Space Shuttle as the bearer of orbital traffic (Launius 4). Other launch systems remained available, but their future was placed in doubt by pressure from NASA. Following the Challenger disaster, however, the old stable of boosters was revitalized and expanded, so that by the 1990s a restored Shuttle and a large number of other launch vehicles would again be available for U. S. space needs. The boosters include the Scout, Delta, Atlas-Centaur, Titan 34, and Titan 4 (Shipman 32).
Considerable efforts were also being made to study the possibilities of developing and properly using some new heavy-lift boosters, similar to the Saturn family of vehicles developed in the 1960s. The new boosters could either be derived from existing Shuttle engines or be developed from new technologies that promise considerably lower costs. Applications could include large space-station modules, military payloads, and advanced interplanetary probes (Shipman 32). NASA’s first high profile program was Project Mercury, an effort to learn if humans could survive in space (Shipman 2).
It was the prelude to the later missions, and it gave NASA the necessary data to build better, and more comfortable ships for humans to stay in space for extended periods of time. The first launch of the Mercury program was the LJ-1 on August 21, 1959. At thirty-five minutes before launch, evacuation of the area had been proceeding on schedule. Suddenly, half an hour before launch-time, an explosive flash occurred. When the smoke cleared it was evident that only the capsule-and-tower combination had been launched, on a trajectory similar to an off-the-pad abort (“Mercury: LJ-1”).
The first mildly successful spacecraft launch occurred September 9, 1959. Although the BJ-1 ship experienced some problems, and the timing on some of the separation procedures was off, the capsule made it back to earth some seven hours after lift-off. The capsule orbited the earth for approximately thirteen minutes (“Mercury: BJ-1”). Mercury mission MA-5 was the first to carry live organisms into sub-orbit. Although Enos – a chimpanzee, was not a perfect substitute for a human, he served as a good test for the environmental controls of the capsule.
He orbited the earth in total weightlessness for over three hours and upon landing was in perfect physical condition (“Mercury: MA-5”). On May 5, 1961, Freedom 7 was the first launch to carry humans into space. Alan B. Shepard, Jr. was the only crewmember, and the successful mission lasted for over 15 minutes (“Mercury: MR-3”). More manned flights from the Mercury series followed, highlighted by the Friendship 7, where on February 20, 1962, John Glenn was the first American in actual orbit, and he orbited the earth three times for a little under five hours (“Mercury: MA-6”).
The last mission from the Mercury project came on May 15, 1963, where L. Gordon Cooper was in orbit in the Faith 7 for over a day. Total weightless time was over thirty-four hours, and the mission was celebrated and deemed more than successful (“Mercury: MA-9”). Gemini missions followed which built on the success of the Mercury flights, and basically followed the same outlines, except with a crew of two astronauts. The most monumental program in the history of the US came next, following the late President Kennedy’s mission of landing a person on the Moon. The Apollo project featured many milestones, and also some setbacks.
The Apollo 1 mission was a huge failure as astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives when a fire swept through the Command Module (“Apollo 1”). After a few more test flights, Apollo 8, launched on December 21, 1968, was the first manned lunar orbital mission, staying in the Moon’s orbit for twenty hours, making ten circles (Zimmerman 6). While the flights before were all important, the most celebrated and documented mission in the history of the US was the Apollo 11, where Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.
were the first to land on the Moon. The mission launched without any delays on July 16, 1969, and even the crewmembers could barely grasp the magnitude of their mission. Before the flight, while the astronauts were being strapped in, Michael Collins had this to say, “Here I am, a white male, age thirty-eight, height 5 feet 11 inches, weight 165 pounds, salary $17,000 per annum, resident of a Texas suburb, with black spot on my roses, state of mind unsettled, about to be shot off to the Moon. Yes, to the Moon” (“Apollo 13”). The flight went perfectly and on July 20 at 04:17 p.
m. EDT, “The eagle has landed. ” The first step on Moon, was at exactly 10:56:15 p. m. EDT, and Aldrin described the experience better than anyone else could, “We opened the hatch and Neil, with me as his navigator, began backing out of the tiny opening. It seemed like a small eternity before I heard Neil say, ‘that’s one small step for man . . . one giant leap for mankind. ’ In less than fifteen minutes I was backing awkwardly out of the hatch and onto the surface to join Neil, who, in the tradition of all tourists, had his camera ready to photograph my arrival” (“Apollo 13”).
There were celebrations all around the world, especially in the US when Neil Armstrong place the US flag into the rocky lunar soil, and straightened out the creases. At this time, the two astronauts on the surface received probably the biggest phone call of their life, from the president. “Neil and Buzz, I am talking to you by telephone from the Oval Office at the White House, and this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made . . . Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world.
As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth… (Shipman 47). On July 24, 1969, the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, and within minutes, they were on the USS Hornet (“Apollo 13”). More missions would follow, particularly the Apollo 13 mission, which was almost a complete disaster. Another mission to set humans on the Moon, was aborted after numerous failures – 200,000 miles from Earth. The astronauts did return in a Life Module.
Certainly, history of space flight has been very rich with accomplishments and milestones, but it appears that the world has reached a small bottleneck for technology in the area of space exploration. In addition, the lack of competition from any other country has slowed down the pace of innovation (Ballard, et al. 28). With the launching of the first satellites in the 1950s, questions arose over the problem of sovereignty in space. Numerous solutions of the United Nations General Assembly and five major international treaties took up these problems. Perhaps the most important treaty was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
It stated that the Moon and all other celestial bodies were to be free for exploration and use by all states and that international law and the United Nations Charter would apply. Signatories pledged not to place weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, in space or to establish military bases there. The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty prohibited nuclear testing in outer space (Shipman 76). With the launching of the first satellites in the 1950s, questions arose over the problem of sovereignty in space. Numerous solutions of the United Nations General Assembly and five major international treaties took up these problems.
Perhaps the most important treaty was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. It stated that the Moon and all other celestial bodies were to be free for exploration and use by all states and that international law and the United Nations Charter would apply. Signatories pledged not to place weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, in space or to establish military bases there. The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty prohibited nuclear testing in outer space (Shipman 76). Advances in space technology are requiring further legal developments, particularly with the growing potential for commercial operations in space.
The more mundane problems involved in such operations include the patenting of materials and processes that could be conceived and pursued on space stations, questions of civil liability and insurance, and matters of contracts and of export controls. In addition, in the 1990s a nuclear-satellite-safety treaty by the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was nearing completion, and environmental and space-debris were under active consideration (Shipman 78). Safety is also paramount with the shuttle. Out of 113 flights, two shuttles and fourteen crewmembers have been lost.
When comparing this safety record to that of commercial jet liners, even the most gung-ho space enthusiast can see that a safety problem exists within NASA’s Shuttle program (Shipman 131). Many Americans probably first learned of the ISS in the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy. What began as Space Station Freedom in the late 1980s, at a cost of less than eight billion dollars, has swollen to more than 95 billion dollars in the station’s current appropriations. In 2001 alone, the General Accounting Office increased the expected cost of station construction and maintenance by more than 35 billion dollars (Shipman 129).
When people are informed of this price tag, the first question they usually ask is “What are we getting out of it? ” The answer is, unfortunately, very little. Because of cost overruns, NASA has reduced the crew to three from the original plan of seven. It has also considered stopping station construction at a milestone they call “US Core Complete,” which eliminates most of the international laboratories that were previously planned. NASA has stated that it takes approximately two and a half crew members merely to maintain the station, leaving only half of one crew member’s time to perform scientific research (Shipman 131).
Many of NASA’s problems start before a project is implemented. Unlike most bid systems, NASA chooses a contractor before the price is named. Rather than set a fixed price for each contract, government regulators demand that aerospace companies document their internal costs in detail. They are then allowed to add a small percentage above those costs to make a profit (Shipman 124). This system allows contractors to add overhead and extra managers that actually do nothing, and merely increases the cost of the project and therefore the contractor’s profits.
NASA also has the curious practice of canceling new projects after substantial research and costs, but it does this before anything useful has been created to the point where it can be used. For example, NASA recently cancelled the X-33, a concept design for a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle, after investing 912 million dollars (Launius 4), and it plans to sell the remaining pieces for scrap after storing the vehicle since the program was terminated. Both the X-34 and the X-37, also concepts for new manned space vehicles, were cancelled in a similar way in the last three years (Launius 4).
With all of these problems, one might say that NASA is beyond repair. This is not the case. With some redirection and reallocation of resources, NASA can again inspire the general public as it did during the time of the moon landings. At the same time, it will produce more tangible results and reaffirm itself as the premiere space agency. The first project that would improve NASA is the restarting of the majority of the X-projects, one of which would eventually replace the shuttle as the main ground-to-orbit vehicle. When this is proposed, many people object that it will either take too long or cost too much.
One set of figures that has been stated repeatedly by opponents is ten years and twenty billion dollars to develop a new space plane. While this sounds like a lot of time and money, it is not a huge amount to NASA. Given that the Shuttle costs one billion dollars per launch, and launches four times each year, one can safely say that NASA spends approximately four billion dollars each year on the Shuttle program. The twenty billion dollars needed for the development of a new space plane is spent on the Shuttle program every five years (Launius 150-154). What is in the future of the space program?
Eventually, people will settle on the planets close to earth, if not because of exploration, but because of a lack of natural resources, which is catching up with mankind. Prototypes of human habitats on Mars are being made, and NASA hopes to have humans on Mars by 2050. The International Space Station should be well on its way to being built, and should be functioning in the next five to ten years (“Future”). New cheaper satellites and explorers are also coming in the near future. The new explorers with plasma propulsion are already in design, and are going to cost no more than one million per unit greatly slashing today’s price.
They are also going to have a virtually inexhaustible fuel capacity, because of the special engine design using metal for fuel. This explorer will be so affordable that they could be sent out in many directions to explore countless star systems, and still be inexpensive enough to lose (Chaikin 60). Plans that are being talked about right now may be a little far-fetched sometimes, but even if some of them will materialize, the future looking bright indeed. Forty-eight years ago, John F. Kennedy set a grand plan in motion. His State of the Union address pushed the United States to its limits.
Better training methods, and many schools for future astronauts have made a big difference in the level of the training, ability and intelligence of the future crews of American spaceships. Now, even with interest dwindling, and problems piling up, Americans have to try their best to stare in the face of adversity, and look at the big picture; the endless playground known as outer space. References “Apollo 1. ” Dec. 1999. NASA. Accessed November 10, 2005. <http://polarlander. jpl. nasa. gov> “Apollo 13. ” Dec. 1999. NASA. Accessed November 10, 2005.
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