12:31 09 May 2003

On April 23, Robert F. Thompson testified before the the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. He was the space shuttle’s progam manager from 1970 until just before the first flight in 1981. He dropped a few bombshells, especially some info about fudged and outright fabricated numbers to help justify the shuttle during budgeting and development. Of note is the fact that although they advertised 40-50 flights per year, the maximum output of the external tank supplier was 24 ETs per year. The higher launch rate was then used to calculate a $118 dollar per pound to orbit cost, which was a major selling point to Congress. Also, the total cost of development and the 1981 first lauch date were more or less accurately predicted, but lower estimates and a 1979 first launch were officially presented during justification hearings. Also is this observation on his part:

“Neither one of these accidents [Columbia and Challenger] that we’ve had on the Shuttles require Ph.Ds in physics to understand. In fact, they barely exceed high-school physics to understand.
“Erosion on an O-ring when there should be no erosion is an obvious thing.
“Kinetic energies of a 2 1/2 or 3-pound hunk of foam when it’s traveling 700 feet per second — that’s high school physics.”

None of this really comes as a surprise. Even though the space shuttle is definitely “cool”, I think that NASA has really lost it’s way ever since the shuttle pushed other post-Apollo programs off the board. All of the real big successes since the moon landings have been unmanned space probes (Pioneer, Viking, Voyager, Pathfinder). Maybe the problem with manned space flight isn’t the space shuttle, per se. Maybe the problem with manned space flight is NASA itself. Just a thought.