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Spaced out

Veteran astronaut Mike Mullane has rightly criticised US space officials for compromising on safety standards of the space shuttle fleet.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2006 00:15 IST
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Veteran astronaut Mike Mullane has rightly criticised US space officials for compromising on safety standards of the space shuttle fleet. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 1986 Challenger disaster (which killed all seven astronauts on board), there isn’t much to indicate that Nasa has learnt its lessons well. Even suggestions of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which probed the breakup of Columbia that killed its crew during re-entry three years ago, were apparently glossed over by Nasa’s bureaucratic inertia.

It’s a shame that Nasa administrators still cling to their so-called ‘Nasa culture’ and the systemic flaws that led to catastrophe — Apollo 1 in 1967, Challenger in 1986, and Columbia in 2003. Even Discovery’s return-to-flight last year was plagued by insulation problems that could have led to another disaster. Nasa has yet to make amends for some of its ‘bad’ decisions. Blaming budget cuts for eliminating many safety checks during shuttle launches and letting private contractors (whose commitment to the space effort is notorious) run the shuttle programme is hardly the way forward. Nasa’s initial goal of building a small fleet of reusable vehicles that could be launched as often as every fortnight has also failed. The shuttle averaged not more than four flights a year, and cost almost 15 times the estimate. When the Columbia disaster underscored the shuttle’s fundamental vulnerabilities, Nasa had another chance to find an alternative to flying the spaceship until 2020. But it failed, and has only itself to blame for working in fits and starts towards replacing the shuttle.

With the shuttle’s likely successor, the crew exploration vehicle or CEV, capable of landing on a runway, or even a capsule that would return to Earth by parachute, still a decade away, Nasa finds itself where no space agency has been before.