Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Our Days Are Numbered

I’ve been busy with getting my group ready for the launch of STS-121. We work in the Mission Evaluation Room, the engineering support room for the program and the flight control team. I worked the first launch attempt on Saturday morning and helped examine the L5L jet heater problem and cleared it for launch. Last night, I attended the MMT meeting in Houston during the discussion of the foam crack as an observer. I wanted to see the rationale for flight myself and then had to notify my console folks to come in for the launch attempt on the 4th.

All of us working in the program are aware of what is at stake here. Being in Safety has never been an easy job. If things go wrong, like they did on STS-107, then we have failed. That’s a sober reminder of the importance and consequences of what we do.

On a personal level, this flight is filled with uncertainty. I’ve been with shuttle for almost twenty years now, so it’s sad that the program is ending. There is also a bit more stress. Aside from handling the emotional burden of another accident if it occurs, there is the knowledge that my job has a finite end, bringing with it an uncertain future. A younger friend of mine in the program with me sayid yesterday it's foolish now not to have updated resumes, and he’s right. Of course, there never is a guaranteed job unless you’re a civil servant, and even that guarantee is not 100%. At my age (55 as of 2 days ago), finding a new job in this industry will be tough. I’ve known there would be financial turmoil ahead, but I’ve been hoping it’s four years off.

NASA needs the shuttle to do well. If STS-121 launches and we do not liberate large pieces of foam or any foam that threatens the vehicle, then NASA will have demonstrated that it can bounce back from adversity and solve a very difficult technical problem. We talk at work all the time about how the problem is due to the vehicle’s “piggyback” design; if the Orbiter were riding on top of a booster stack, the “tip of the spear” so to speak, then any debris shedding would have no impact. Personally, I’ve always felt that winged space vehicles were the way to go, and you can bet that at some point we’ll return to some variant of them again. Hopefully, then the lessons of shuttle will carry forward. Even with the “spam in a can” design of CEV, many of the technical lessons learned with designing and managing flight systems and operations can be applied along with (hopefully) lessons learned during Apollo. For despite the beating the shuttle is taking in the press and the court of public opinion, the shuttle is still a complex and wonderful machine.

As NASA managers have returned to saying, spaceflight is a risky business. NASA did itself and the public a disservice in the Reagan era by adopting the rhetoric of making spaceflight routine. The new commercial ventures, which travel at much lower velocities and altitudes and can slowly ratchet up their achievements and pace as financial capital flows in, have a much better chance of doing that. That is not the government’s role in space. The government’s role is to take the risks that the commercial sector won’t, to blaze new ground, and to open up the New Frontier to human exploration and development. In that light, NASA will always be doing a risky job, and that is what we get paid to do.

I’m not on the launch shift today. I’m helping the MER Safety Console tonight if we launch today, and I believe there’s a good chance we will. I’ll be working mainly as a substitute this mission, stepping out of my usual role in order to let my younger troops step up the bar while they can. We all know the shuttle’s days are numbered, and that makes each opportunity we have to work with it a little more precious.