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Some Astronauts Want Shuttle Escape System

Influential corps is divided over the need for a method to save crews' lives.

June 04, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

With 14 astronauts killed in two space shuttle accidents since 1986, some astronauts say it's now time for NASA to provide an escape or ejection system that could save the crew the next time a disaster strikes.

The influential and politically powerful astronaut corps within NASA is likely to weigh in soon with a recommendation. In low-profile symposiums that began this week in Houston, active and retired astronauts are debating the merits of equipping the shuttle with a crew escape system.

"We can't afford to lose another crew," said former chief astronaut Robert "Hoot" Gibson, who attended Tuesday's meeting. "We have to put in place an escape system. The young astronauts say we don't need it, but we shouldn't listen to them."

Indeed, astronauts are divided on the issue. Some have said crews deserve a fighting chance to survive, given the frailties of the space shuttle. But other astronauts have rejected the idea, saying they accept the high risk and that placing an escape system into existing orbiters is not practical or affordable. Putting too high a premium on their safety could kill the space program, some worry.

One issue is whether the American public can accept not only high risks in future missions but an inevitability that astronauts will die. Although they are far from the superheroes they were in the 1960s, astronauts are still idolized in the schools and NASA still attracts highly accomplished men and women.

Former astronaut Charles Bolden, who flew on the shuttle four times and was later promoted to brigadier general, said elevating safety to the point that no loss of life is acceptable could end up killing the program.

"The reason we don't have a crew escape system is that it has been thoroughly assessed and the people who did the assessment said it wouldn't work," Bolden said. "We need to educate the public that the astronaut business is dangerous work."

Norm Thagard, associate dean of Florida State University's School of Engineering and a former astronaut, agreed with Bolden that the costs would be prohibitive and the benefits uncertain. Thagard, who once flew combat missions over North Vietnam, said, "Historically, it was acceptable that astronauts could die too. I wonder what kind of a world we live in if the public can no longer accept that kind of risk."

But other astronauts, engineers and space experts said NASA should not reject the idea of an escape system without careful consideration and that cost should not be a barrier. If the Columbia crew had survived the destruction of the spacecraft after it reentered Earth's atmosphere Feb. 1, NASA would not be under such scrutiny.

Rhea Seddon, a medical doctor in Tennessee and veteran of three shuttle flights, said she remains open-minded about the need for an ejection system.

"Some people say we have to suck it up and we have to take our losses," Seddon said. "I am not sure everybody is real comfortable with that approach."

Although survivability cannot be guaranteed, it makes sense for the astronaut corps to carefully reconsider whether an escape system might work, Seddon added.

Even before the Columbia disaster, experts were urging NASA to put a crew ejection system into the shuttle. Richard Blomberg, chairman of NASA's independent space shuttle safety panel, had recommended NASA improve shuttle safety by including a crew escape system, for example.

"NASA has a new standard that requires a crew escape system for any new space vehicle," Blomberg said in an interview. "What people are asking is, why should the shuttle be exempt?"

Gibson, the former astronaut, predicted that the Astronaut Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston would formally recommend to NASA that it equip the shuttles with an escape system in the next several years. He said if NASA carried out its plan to fly the shuttle for another 20 years, one or two more crews could perish.

Although current astronauts said in a poll they are willing to accept the risk, Gibson said they are swayed by their desire to fly the shuttle. The retired astronauts are able to make a better judgment on the issue, he said.

A NASA spokesman at Johnson Space Center said the astronaut office has not reached an opinion on the matter.

Former astronaut Michael Coats, who now is in charge of Lockheed Martin Corp.'s program to design a space plane, has strongly advocated escape systems, saying in a recent interview that "astronauts deserve a fighting chance."

The thorny debate over a crew rescue system also goes to the heart of whether the shuttle is too old and too dangerous to continue flying. Critics in Congress and even some top space engineers have said the shuttle should be retired immediately or certainly long before the current plan that would keep it operating past 2022.

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