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Shuttle Launch Was Warned About Cold : Ejection System Lack Hit in Recent Studies

February 12, 1986|KIM MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — NASA has shown a "continuing strong bias" towards boosting performance of the space shuttle for its paying customers rather than improving reliability, an independent safety panel concluded in recent reviews of the shuttle program.

The panel over the last five years scored NASA for failing to provide an ejection system for astronauts and "hundreds of deviations" from prescribed quality control procedures.

A team of aerospace industry executives and consultants appointed by Congress generally commended the space agency for doing a "superb" job on safety, but also repeatedly found design and operating problems that it predicted could lead to accidents.

The panel reports annually to NASA on safety concerns related to the shuttle program. On Tuesday NASA made available panel reports from 1980 to 1984. The 1985 report is expected to be released today.

Test pilots and astronauts reported vibrations on the 250-m.p.h. landings that tended to be regarded as minor but which constituted "potentially uncontrollable instability," the panel said in one report.

"The lack of a landing incident to date is a tribute to the skills of the astronauts and to the carefully planned and executed training programs," concluded the nine-member aerospace advisory panel, commissioned by Congress after the 1967 launch pad fire that killed three Apollo astronauts.

The review team is chaired by John Brizengine, former president of Douglas Aircraft Co., and includes executives and former executives from TRW space groups, Trans World Airline and Tennessee Valley Authority and a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. NASA officials have already addressed many of the panel's concerns--often by persuading members to the agency's own view. But safety issues require constant reminders when NASA is focusing on turning the shuttle into a reliable, cost-effective means of space transportation, said Gilbert Roth, executive officer of the team, in an interview Tuesday.

'Operational' Issue

In its 1984 review of the shuttle program, the panel cautioned: "NASA management would be well-advised to avoid advertising the shuttle as being 'operational' in the airline sense when it clearly isn't."

In the agency's response to safety recommendations, the panel complained in 1983 that "the general tenor of NASA's report . . . demonstrated the continuing strong bias of NASA management to spend the limited resources on major performance changes and to relegate changes for reliability and safe reduction of turnaround time to a lower priority."

NASA spokesman Hugh Harris conceded Tuesday that "it (is) certainly a goal to provide convenient, as low a cost as possible, routine access into space" through the shuttle programs, "but certainly not at the expense of safety."

NASA has adopted a number of design and testing changes in response to the aerospace panel's recommendations since 1980.

For instance, the panel expressed major concern about aerodynamic and thermal loads imposed on the orbiter during liftoff and return from orbit.

In many cases, the panel found, the orbiter was experiencing loads well in excess of those envisioned during design, though they never exceeded safety margins.

Strain Limits Exceeded

During the first five launches the predicted strain limits on the wing alone was exceeded 63 times during ascent and 41 times on descent, the panel found.

In response, NASA adopted a new stress measuring system and strengthened both the wing and the fuselage of the orbiter.

Another concern voiced by the panel was the lack of any ejection system for astronauts in the event of an accident just after launch--when ejection might be at least remotely practical--or on landing.

New technology is available that could safely eject a number of crew members and potentially save many of them, the panel said.

NASA provided ejection seats during the shuttle's first four launches when only two astronauts were aboard. Later, the panel concurred with the agency that it was "a reasonable decision" not to include an ejection system on later flights, though the issue was hotly debated, Roth said.

NASA spokesman Jim Mizell said the decision was a practical one. "It's very similar to the airlines," he said. "Airline pilots don't have parachutes, and neither do the passengers. Once we got operational, everybody decided it was unnecessary."

The panel has repeatedly complained about the potential for landing accidents with the shuttle's high landing speed, NASA landing gear loads and frequent brake failures.

New Steering System

The space agency responded with a new steering system that will not require the use of brakes to guide the craft on the ground, but the other concerns "continued to be a source of discussion," Roth said.

The issue of quality control emerged in one of the panel's recent annual reviews, with cautions that the space agency's substantial body of procedures and documentation "does not always result in suitable hardware."

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