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Shuttle 'experimental,' astronaut says

Famous Tech grad calls on NASA to change rules

by Mike Toner - April 18, 2003

2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Reproduced by permission

Former astronaut John Young, who commanded the space shuttle Columbia's maiden voyage, said Thursday that NASA must quickly develop ways to repair damage to the shuttle heat shield system in orbit and adopt "more conservative" flight rules for future missions.

"The orbiter is not an operational vehicle and they need to stop treating it like one," the 72-year-old space veteran said during a visit to Georgia Tech, where he graduated in aerospace engineering in 1952. "This is still an experimental vehicle. STS-107 [Columbia's final flight] proved that pretty well."

Some of Young's concerns were echoed Thursday in Houston, where the Columbia Accident Investigation Board warned that NASA procedures may have contributed to the loss of the spacecraft and its crew of seven on Feb. 1.

The board, headed by retired Adm. Harold Gehman, said new safety measures should be instituted before NASA allows the three remaining shuttles to fly again.

The board urged the agency to develop a "comprehensive inspection plan" for the complex sandwich of materials that make up the leading edge of the spacecraft's wings. Damage there, either during launch or in space, is believed to be a root cause of Columbia's fiery disintegration over Texas.

Investigators also recommended that NASA quickly sign an agreement with the Defense Department's National Imagery and Mapping Agency for routine imaging of the shuttle in orbit. Although the defense agency's powerful ground-based telescopes might have spotted damage to the shuttle before re-entry, NASA failed to ask for an inspection.

The board said the need for both measures is so evident that work on them did not need to wait for its investigation of the accident to be wrapped up sometime this summer.

But Young, a veteran of six spaceflights who now serves as associate director of the Johnson Space Center, said other changes also are needed to build "more conservatism" into future shuttle missions.

Specifically, he said, the agency needs to expand the role of the International Space Station so that any damage to the thermal protection system can be repaired before re-entry.

Young also said he would like to see NASA alter the trajectory that the shuttle follows after launch, so that it could, in the event of main engine malfunction during ascent, return to selected airports on the East Coast.

Despite his concerns about safety, Young, one of 12 Americans who have walked on the moon, is decidedly upbeat about the future of human space flight. He told 250 Tech engineering students he fully expects to see permanent bases on the moon and manned landings on Mars.

"We'll go back when the president says, 'Do it,' " he said. "It will take a lot of money, but so what? We just spent $70 billion on a war in Iraq."

But Young said it is unrealistic to think human activity in space will take place without other losses, like that of Columbia, in the future. He recalled that back in the early 1980s, when he was training for the first shuttle flights, some NASA planners claimed the shuttle would make space flight routine.

"They were telling us that we didn't need ejection seats because it was going to be as safe as a DC-8," he said with a wry smile.

Young and other shuttle pilots were most concerned about the shuttle's ascent into space. A special concern was the first two minutes when it is attached to its two thundering solid rocket boosters, the period at which the Challenger later exploded in 1986.

"After we got into orbit on that first flight, I figured we were OK," he said. "We all thought the descent would be a piece of cake."

For more than 100 shuttle missions, it was.

As Young sat in mission control on Feb. 1, Columbia -- the orbiter he had first flown into space 22 years earlier -- began what everyone expected to be another routine descent toward its landing strip in Florida.

"I knew the instant we lost the trajectory, that we had lost the vehicle," Young recalled. "It was a good vehicle."

This week, 10 weeks after the accident, NASA reported it was winding down efforts to recover fragments of the orbiter that rained down across East Texas. So far, search crews have recovered more than 70,000 pieces of debris -- about one third of the spacecraft that Young first flew.

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