Whither the Shuttle?

WHITHER THE SHUTTLE?….The LA Times has a good story about the shuttle report today. It makes a couple of points that I think have been overlooked in the rush to condemn NASA’s “broken culture.” First, there’s the problem with the very nature of the shuttle itself:

“I believe the shuttle is inherently unsafe,” retired NASA mathematician and rocket engine expert Jud Lovingood said this week. “We have proven that and there are more problems waiting to jump out. It is too complex. It is 1970s technology.”

Lovingood’s view was widely endorsed in interviews with members of Congress, space policy experts and space engineers.

Second, blaming culture is something of a cop-out:

Some outside critics also take sharp exception to the board’s emphasis on NASA’s culture as a cause of the accident. Blaming the agency’s culture casts responsibility on a vague concept rather than on the errors of individuals, the lack of technological expertise in the space agency and the failure by Congress to provide funds after NASA leaders warned that safety was deteriorating.

“Culture is amorphous,” said John Pike, executive director of the think tank GlobalSecurity.org. “Nobody owns a culture. Culture is the easy way out.”

It’s a cliche ? but true nonetheless ? that engineering projects can be fast, cheap, or good. You can have any two, but not all three, and the shuttle is no exception. If you want high reliability (good) and frequent launches (fast), it’s going to be expensive. Unfortunately, the people who are really responsible are in denial about this:

[Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher also takes a dimmer view of the shuttle’s safety than the board does, but he praised Gehman’s work and said he believes NASA’s deeply flawed culture, rather than inadequate funding by Congress, was at the root of the Columbia tragedy.

Sure, Dana. Congress has been consistently warned about inadequate shuttle funding for the past two decades and has ignored it the same way that NASA managers ignored safety warnings from their line engineers. Apparently NASA isn’t the only government body with a flawed culture.

I don’t doubt that NASA has management problems that need to be addressed, but trying to pin the blame solely on that is delusionary. Contrary to the mantra of the 80s, quality and safety aren’t free, and that’s nowhere more true than with a fundamentally rickety, complex, and ancient vehicle like the shuttle. We should either acknowledge the risks of the shuttle program and fund it adequately given its age and complexity, or we should dump it. Anything else is just asking for another disaster.

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