Thursday, June 22, 2006

No Guts! No Glory!

Let nobody accuse NASA Administrator Mike Griffin of shying away from making tough decisions. NASA safety engineers recommended against launching the next shuttle because of concerns over foam debris. Others within NASA recommended going forward. According to this story (here) on nasaspaceflight.com, the risk from a debris strike does not pose a threat to the crew so much as it does to the shuttle.
"...[A]ll sections of the Agency understand there is no risk to the crew of Discovery during ascent from foam loss, given that cannot cause a LOV (Loss of Vehicle) during the climb to orbit. The risk is only associated with re-entry, which would not occur if Discovery suffers a serious foam hit on ascent. The crew has the option of the safe haven on the International Space Station (ISS), before being rescued by Atlantis on STS-300"
In other words, if Discovery is damaged during launch the crew isn't flying it home and NASA will have to figure out how to repair it for a safe return or decide what to do with a space shuttle stuck in orbit. That would be a whole lot of very expensive hardware floating around the Earth unable to be brought home.

Despite the risk, Griffin did what a manager is supposed to do, took the recommendations of his staff, evaluated them himself, and made a decision. He decided the risk was worth taking. Here's what he had to say.
"'Some of the senior NASA individuals responsible for particular technical areas, particular disciplines, expressed that they would rather stand down until we had fixed the ice/frost ramp the way that -- something better,' noted Griffin at the post-FRR press conference. 'Whereas, many others said no, we should go ahead. So we did not have unanimity. Therefore, a decision had to be made.'

'Debris shed from the tank does not pose an ascent risk for the Shuttle. It poses a risk for entry, but since we have inspection methods, we are beginning to converge on some rudimentary repair methods which may be useful. Since we have Station for a safe haven, since we have the possibility of -- in fact, we evaluated quite carefully.

'We have an excellent capability for Launch on Need, and we have the Russian partners. So we have a number of mitigation strategies should the unlikely occur and we have a debris strike.

'I think that goes without saying, but I cannot possibly accept every recommendation which I am given by every member of my staff, especially since they don't all agree.'"
He makes it sound so easy. The easy decision would have been to scrub the launch. The hard decision was to proceed. Griffin has got guts.

-tdr

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