Despite everything NASA can do to repair and upgrade its aging space shuttles, there is an overwhelming likelihood that another catastrophic failure will happen within the next decade, says a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist and member of the board that investigated the mid-air disintegration of the shuttle Columbia last year.
In an interview at the University of Toronto, Douglas Osheroff, a Stanford University scientist, detailed a host of issues that won't be addressed in efforts to fix the problem that led to Columbia's disintegration -- a piece of insulating foam broke off during liftoff.
"If you look at the system in terms of the number of single-failure items, it is enormous, it is over a thousand. The system is also getting old; there is corrosion in places NASA cannot see and there are lots of problems with wiring.. . . Obviously there are additional accidents waiting to happen," he said.
Prof. Osheroff said things were going wrong that the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration wasn't even aware of until the Columbia Accident Investigation Board examined the ship's doomed flight. Of specific worry were explosive bolts on the reusable rocket boosters that were supposed to be caught by a "bolt catcher" but were seen to break off the shuttle at high speed.
He said that he is not alone in fearing that the shuttle's present tattered safety record -- a complete failure roughly every 50 flights -- can't be significantly improved. "I think that the whole panel is in general agreement with me that probability of another loss is quite high," he said. And of the things that make such a failure even more likely to happen is a generalized NASA administrative culture that doesn't want to hear from engineers that bad things are likely to happen if something isn't fixed.
Prof. Osheroff's assessment of the space agency's ability to banish risk from space flight comes two days after the task group charged with getting the shuttle back flying issued a report that was equally gloomy. It had been hoped that the shuttle, which is vital to the construction of the International Space Station, would be flying by September. Timing is important to this country, because Canada has invested roughly $1.4-billion as its contribution to the building and running of ISS.
"While the tone of this interim report is justifiably positive, progress should not be mistaken for accomplishment," the task force wrote. "It is still much too soon to predict either the success of implementation or the timing of the next flight."
U.S. President George W. Bush said in a speech last week that NASA should aim to have a replacement for the space shuttle ready by 2010 that could both go to the space station and travel on to the moon.
Prof. Osheroff pointed out that three previous efforts to replace the shuttle came to naught when the U.S. government refused to give the space agency increased funding for technological development. He also threw cold water on one of the supposed rationales for the U.S. manned return to the moon -- the mining of Helium-3 as a potential rocket fuel. In 1996, the Stanford professor shared the Nobel Prize for his studies of behaviour of the form of helium at low temperatures.
While it has been posited that Helium-3 could be used in powering a fusion power reactor, Prof. Osheroff said no such reactor exists and, even if it did, it might not be suitable for powering a space ship.