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What Price Shuttle Safety?

Upgrades could cost billions, experts say. The Columbia board's recommendations will focus debate on the future of the program.

May 12, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

A comprehensive effort to improve the safety of the space shuttle fleet, including proposed upgrades that had been abandoned or deferred over the last decade, could easily cost $5 billion to $10 billion, according to aerospace experts and technical reports.

An intense political debate is starting over whether such major upgrades make technical or economic sense. It pits supporters, who say the nation has no alternative but to invest in and use the orbiter for the next two decades, against critics who say it is inherently unsafe and does not deserve further investment.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board will propose safety improvements for the shuttle fleet by this summer, although the panel is likely to focus its recommendation on a narrow range of fixes to address the causes of the Feb. 1 accident and avoid dictating a more expansive improvement program, according to a key member.

But the board's recommendations are certain to fuel the larger debate over how much the nation should spend long-term to update a shuttle fleet that was designed 30 years ago, the investigator said. NASA plans to use shuttles until possibly 2022.

The space agency is already redesigning the foam insulation for the shuttle's external tank, aiming to prevent it from falling off and damaging orbiters during future launches. NASA is also developing new testing methods for the thermal protection system, which failed during Columbia's reentry.

Officials at NASA headquarters say they don't have any idea even what those relatively straightforward efforts would cost, although some outside experts speculate they would run into tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

And the cost would increase astronomically for major improvements, such as a crew escape system, redesigned boosters, new auxiliary power units, updated launch control computers, safer thermal protection systems, additional spacesuits, in-orbit repair kits and a range of other items that experts say the shuttles should have.

New boosters, for example, could cost $5 billion. A crew escape system, which could have saved Columbia's astronauts, could cost $1.2 billion for each orbiter, or perhaps as much as an entire new shuttle, experts say.

"This could get expensive very quickly," said former NASA chief engineer W. Brian Keegan. "In returning to flight, the effort may well have to go beyond addressing the specific causes of the accident."

The political realities of the nation's already overextended federal budget could make such a comprehensive safety program a nonstarter. Apart from the money, some leaders in Congress say they lack confidence in NASA or the shuttle program.

"We should spend nothing to improve and upgrade the shuttle," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), chairman of the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics.

"One would expect it would be on the way out. Yet, we hear these people still plan to use the shuttle from here to forever. Maybe they are thinking of the way things work in some other solar system, because none of that makes any sense to me. It shows you just how bad they have been at planning and managing America's space program."

Rohrabacher is hardly the only tough critic in Congress. Last week, Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said the shuttles should be permanently grounded, even if it means no human spaceflight for the next five or 10 years.

Beyond investing in shuttle safety, NASA wants to complete the international space station and build a new astronaut transfer vehicle, known as the space plane. The space plane will cost $5 billion to $10 billion or more if NASA decides to accelerate the program. Another cost for the federal government is the accident inquiry, which could easily be more than $500 million.

Not since the end of the Apollo moon missions in the early 1970s has America's space program arrived at such a critical juncture that will determine its long-range future, said W. Henry Lambright, a space policy expert at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in New York and a consultant to the accident investigation board.

"We are stuck," he said. "We have the shuttle and nothing else. We need to invest in it, but we need to invest in an advanced system to replace it. We need someone to step up and be a political champion for this decision.

"No one has stepped up yet."

Nonetheless, political battle lines are forming. One set of space proponents says the nation must stop treating the shuttle like a low-income family car that never gets maintenance and begin making large-scale investments for the sake of astronaut safety. The existing fleet has been badly neglected over the last half-decade because NASA presumed incorrectly that it would be replaced by now.

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