On February 15, the Acting Administrator of NASA, Robert Lightfoot, announced that NASA would begin a study to see whether or not it was feasible to include a human crew on EM-1, the first test mission of the SLS (Space Launch System).
Let’s unpack what this means.
NASA is currently building a new rocket, SLS, that is intended to take us to the Moon and Mars. They’re also in the working on a new capsule spacecraft, called Orion, that is intended to once again give NASA the ability to launch humans into space. Both these projects are still under construction.
Whenever NASA does anything new that involves human spaceflight, they test, retest and test even more. Think of how long it took us to land on the Moon with the Apollo missions. The first manned Apollo mission to launch, Apollo 7, was a test of the capsule. Apollo 8 took the command and service modules into orbit around the moon, while Apollo 9 tested the Lunar Module (LM, the craft that actually detached from the spacecraft and descended to the Moon) in Earth orbit. Apollo 10 took the whole package—command, service, and LM—to the Moon, but didn’t land. It wasn’t until we’d tested everything we possibly could that we actually sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon on Apollo 11.
Photo courtesy of NASA
This doesn’t even include the unmanned test rocket or capsule flights of the Apollo missions, or the fact that there was an entire series of missions—the oft-undervalued Gemini project, with 10 manned and two unmanned missions—the aim of which was to test maneuvers such as orbital rendezvous, docking, and space walking before we could go to the Moon. That is how much NASA tests. They need to be as sure as they possibly can before risking human lives.
And that is why I’m so skeptical of this new NASA directive. I’m a huge supporter of human spaceflight. The fact that we’ve been confined to low, Earth orbit since the end of Apollo is endlessly frustrating. I want to go to the Moon, Mars and beyond—but not like this.
The new presidential administration hasn’t made a secret of its desire to demonstrate American supremacy, and it apparently views NASA as one avenue to do that. Bob Walker, an adviser to the president’s transition team, said, “What I hear being discussed is the potential for sometime within the first Trump term being able to go and do an Apollo 8 mission.”
It’s true that there were so many things we did not know when we launched Apollo 8, billed as a “Hail Mary” pass around the Moon. We’d never left Earth orbit. We didn’t know what leaving the Earth’s magnetic field would do to astronauts. The list of risks the astronauts were taking on the mission were a mile long, but they were managed risks. We knew the Apollo spacecraft was flight worthy because we’d tested it. We knew the Saturn V rocket would work properly because this was its third flight. We knew, with as much certainty as we could, that the hardware would work.
SLS, or the Space Launch System, will be the biggest rocket ever constructed—bigger even than the mammoth Saturn V rockets that took our astronauts to the Moon. EM-1, the mission is question, is scheduled for late 2018. The plan is to put an uncrewed Orion capsule aboard the SLS and send the rocket and capsule around the Moon. The mission should last around three weeks.
We’ve never tested the full SLS. And we likely won’t until EM-1. Of course, every component of the rocket will be tested and re-tested before use. But the idea of putting a crew on top of a rocket we’ve never flown before, the most powerful rocket ever constructed by humans, is, quite frankly, mind boggling.
Not only that, but this puts extreme pressure on NASA to meet arbitrary political deadlines. While the Orion capsule has been flown in an unmanned test, the first manned test (EM-2) isn’t scheduled until 2021. In fact, NASA was discussing shortening the EM-2 test flight because they wanted to fully test the life support systems on the craft.
This accelerated schedule is not only frustrating, it’s irresponsible and dangerous. We need to make sure the hardware is fully ready (and fully tested) before we put astronauts anywhere near it. And NASA has proven time and time again that a deadline-oriented launch schedule brings disastrous results. While NASA would never knowingly endanger the lives of astronauts, there’s a culture at NASA that author Diane Vaughan called the normalization of deviance. This is when well-meaning people within an organization (in this case, NASA) push the limits on safety—and it works out. This limit becomes the new normal, until they push again. Eventually this “normalization of deviance” ends in disaster, as it did in both Challenger and Columbia.
In the case of Challenger, NASA had been warned that the O-rings, which were used as seals between fuel segments on the solid rocket boosters, would not hold at low temperatures. Yet they forged ahead because they had successfully launched at low temperatures previously.
For Columbia, foam insulation struck the thermal tiles that comprise the orbiter’s heat shield. But NASA had seen thermal tile damage on previous shuttle reentry, so they assumed it was safe. In both these examples, we had tried and tested spacecraft and rockets—that won’t be the case for Orion and SLS.
Photo courtesy of NASA
Every time normalization of deviance has come up in NASA culture, it’s because of a pressure to meet deadlines. I’m not saying that, if it happens, this mission will end in disaster. But NASA’s main goal is prioritizing the safety of the astronauts, first and foremost. They don’t need politicians pressuring them to take shortcuts to make an arbitrary, and potentially unsafe, deadline.
It’s possible that this directive might be the kick that the organization needs to streamline some of its bureaucracy and get us into space as quickly (but also as safely) as possible. But I fear for the shortcuts it might engender and what this directive means for the future. Since our much-lauded “Moon Shot,” we have been confined to low Earth orbit for four decades. Seeing NASA as means to a political end, demonstrating our American supremacy, might have had illustrious short-term results, but it stunted growth long-term. Let’s not allow that to happen again.
Top photo courtesy of NASA
Swapna Krishna is a freelance writer, editor, and giant space/sci-fi geek.