NASA Needs To Relearn How To Roll The Dice

NASA used to take risks. It used to occasionally throw caution to the wind and just go for broke on some pretty dangerous missions. In short, and to be slightly crude, NASA used to have balls.

Jul 29 2011, 4:18am

NASA used to take risks. It used to occasionally throw caution to the wind and just go for broke on some pretty dangerous missions. In short, and to be slightly crude, NASA used to have balls. Surveying NASA's history, which is filled with the realities of the risky endeavour that is manned spaceflight, it's clear that the organization has become more cautious in recent decades.

Spaceflight is inherently a gamble and counterintuitive to the human psyche. It takes a special kind of person—one, say, with the right stuff—to get on top of a rocket and ride it into the vacuum of space. Riding rockets was arguably a scarier prospect to the astronauts who flew as part of the Mercury and Gemini programs, for the Redstone, Atlas, and Titan launch vehicles were never built for spaceflight. They were missile rockets modified to hold men. A warhead was essentially swapped out for the astronaut.

Using available rockets in the early 1960s was a necessity since NASA didn't have the luxury of time to build manned-spaceflight-specific rockets. The organization didn't even have the opportunity to build spacecraft from scratch; some pieces that went into the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft were off the shelf parts that could be applied to spaceflight. The Space Race did more than force a new use from existing hardware. It forced NASA to roll the dice.

Mercury planners had originally planned for each of the seven Mercury astronauts to make a suborbital flight before moving to orbital missions. The idea was to gain as much information about the human reaction to spaceflight in the shorter five minutes without gravity before the longer orbital period of 90 minutes of weightlessness.

But after Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight in 1961, the pressure was on and the number of suborbital test flights was cut from seven to two. Alan Shepard's successful Freedom 7 flight didn't quite even the score, but it did spark a surge of pride among Americans. President Kennedy sought to capitalize on America's new obsession with sending men into space and pledged the country would complete a moon landing within the decade—a very ballsy move for the young president and for a nation with less than 15 minutes of spaceflight under its belt.

From that point on, spaceflight progressed at an impressive speed. Less than a year later, NASA sent John Glenn into orbit on the notoriously fickle Atlas rocket, whose ultra-thin skin gave Atlas a tendency to collapse under its own weight when not fueled. The weak structure was problematic even when fueled and ready for launch.

The Gemini program saw some risky missions in the name of maintaining momentum. Ed White's historic space walk in June of 1965 had only been in the planning stages but was a last minute addition to the flight plan. It was a necessary addendum after the Soviets got a man out on his own in the void of space first.

To practice rendezvous in space (a necessary aspect of docking spacecraft in orbit), NASA launched an Agena rocket ahead of a Gemini mission to serve as a rendezvous target. After one Agena failed to achieve orbit, the organization opted to send two missions in quick succession (just 11 days apart) and have them rendezvous with one another. With a crash of two orbiting manned spacecraft a possibility, it was a bold move.

The risk NASA had taken on turned sour with the Apollo program. NASA's first fatality came in 1967 when a fire during a routine pre-flight test killed the crew of Apollo 1. The Apollo program was delayed a year and seven months while engineers redesigned substantial aspects of the spacecraft and its systems.

The program resumed manned flights in October 1968 with Apollo 7. In the wake of its success, NASA took its greatest gamble with Apollo 8. Midway through 1968, NASA received intelligence from the CIA that the Soviet Union had sent an unmanned spacecraft around the moon and returned it safely to Earth. This was thought to be the precursor mission to a manned lunar flight. NASA had no intention to let the Soviets get there first.

And so the space organization sent Apollo 8 to the Moon in December of 1968 with no lunar module. This broke the planned order of missions that was designed to test a complete spacecraft in Earth orbit before reaching the moon. But the mission was worthwhile, bringing Americans to the moon first and proving NASA's navigational software worked for a lunar missions. Apollo 8 entered into and completed ten orbits around the moon before returning home.

This bold move allowed NASA to meet its end of decade lunar landing goal just six months later with Apollo 11 in July 1969. With the overall goal achieved, NASA carried on with its lunar landing program in spite of the inherent danger.

But the deadly reality of NASA's rush to the moon took center stage in 1970 when one of Apollo 13's oxygen tanks exploded. The spacecraft lost most of its power and the crew, near death, cancelled their moon landing. Through creative problem solving engineers on the ground were able to bring the crew home safely, but the huge publicity the mission received drove home one point: NASA's operations put lives on the line.

In the wake of Apollo 13, NASA lost substantial funding that led to the cancellation of the last three Apollo missions: Apollo 18, 19, and 20. Still, the program picked up eight months later in January of 1971 with Apollo 14, refusing the cow to the hazards inherent to its goals.

Yet, despite its cavalier history, in the decades since the Apollo program formally ended with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program NASA has become increasingly cautious.

NASA dealt with its first fatalities on a mission when the Challenger shuttle exploded during launch in January of 1986. The crew of seven was killed and the culprit was determined to be a faulty O-ring, one of the rubber rings that seals the rocket's external fuel tanks. Unlike Apollo 1, however, Challenger's launch was broadcast live throughout the country. Schoolchildren watched the explosion as it happened. Challenger's most recognizable crew member was Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher flying as part of NASA's 'Teacher in Space' program. The tragedy highlighted an issue with the shuttle design. Because the shuttle rested flush against the fuel tanks, there was no escape option for the astronauts on board. Even though they were launching on more tenuous rockets, Mercury and Gemini astronauts had an escape tower and ejection seats respectively.

The shuttle program took a two year and ten months hiatus after the explosion, with the next manned launch coming in September 1988. Unlike the break following Apollo 1, however, there were no major changes made to the shuttle. The technology and hardware remained unchanged. Even the onboard computer went through no major upgrades in the nearly three years between missions.

Tragedy struck again in January 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry over Texas. Another long delay followed with the next manned Shuttle launch two years and six months later in July of 2005.

Even so, those two disasters aside, the shuttle had a pretty good track record. But its successful missions did little to further innovation in terms of manned space exploration. Reaching low Earth orbit has become almost routine, but NASA has yet to put together a serious manned mission much beyond that.

Maybe NASA needs to break out of its comfort zone and commit to a something bold to regain focus and reap the benefits of risk like it used to do. Perhaps a Martian version of Apollo 8 is the answer. It would be difficult but its feasible. A successful manned orbital flight of Mars would inspire a generation of inventors to solve to problems standing in the way of great technological innovation and the result could be great scientific gain. But if this were to happen, NASA would have to really accept the risks inherent in spaceflight again.