Monday, April 27, 2009

Shuttle's past: Time is not on its side

John Kelly
Florida Today

The two dates seem arbitrary because they are. They may seem unrelated, but they're not.

Sept. 30, 2010, is technically the deadline for finishing the last shuttle mission and retiring the fleet.

Feb. 19, 2004, was the deadline for finishing the construction of the International Space Station. But that was before Columbia.

Under intense pressure to keep space station assembly on schedule and within budget, managers harped on that date to the point of installing screensavers on workers' computers counting down the seconds. The message: hurry up, time is running out on your program.

Then, we lost the Columbia astronauts. Investigators blamed the accident in part on schedule pressure, saying it drove people to make bad tradeoffs favoring on-time flights over safety. They wrote, "Most of the shuttle program's concern about Columbia's foam strike were not about the threat it might pose to the vehicle in orbit, but about the threat it might pose to the schedule."

Fast forward to 2009. NASA's shuttle program is again working against the clock. I think managers, engineers and front-line shuttle workers learned the agonizing lessons of Columbia and will not repeat those mistakes on purpose. But, the influence of schedule pressure can be subtle.

In a business demanding perfection, it's the little unnoticed decisions that can add up to a catastrophe. Subtle pressure is there in the form of the 2010 deadline. NASA needs to complete nine more flights to complete the shuttle's mission, which is to finish building and outfitting a space station that can stay in orbit a decade or so.

That's as many as nine missions in about 19 months, or almost six launches per year. Since the return to flight, NASA has flown about three times a year. Even that has required nearly flawless preparation by crews at Kennedy Space Center and some (recent) good luck with the weather.

Nothing is impossible, but flying shuttles every other month or so is as close as it gets. With three orbiters left, stricter safety rules and slim budgets, flying these last missions is going to be difficult enough without the tick-tock of the clock booming in the background. Making matters worse: an exodus of talented people fleeing for more secure jobs.
Read the Rest HERE.

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