NASA has been a rudderless ship since the space shuttle program was canceled a few years ago. In fact, it seemed like the space agency's best days were long behind it, but lately things are looking up for NASA. They have plans to go places and do things. They have a president -- if not necessarily a Congress -- who seems inclined to give them money. The signs are so favorable right now, they're even claiming they aren't in decline but are ready to flourish. It would all be so encouraging if there weren't already rumblings from a watchdog group that this whole space travel renaissance is maybe being built on some shaky ground.
So what has changed? Well, as is so often the case, the biggest part of the deal is money. After five years of repeatedly slashing NASA's budget, the White House is actually requesting $500 million more for the space agency for 2016. If, by some miracle, Congress should get behind this proposal, NASA will be working with a budget of $18.5 billion. The money will go toward funding various projects including the asteroid redirect mission (the one where astronauts will lasso an asteroid), an eventual mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, and the one that will send astronauts to the red earth of Mars.
It's all exciting stuff, but at the same time an independent watchdog group, NASA's safety advisory panel, recently pointed out that all of this is built on the idea that NASA will be transporting astronauts on space ships built by private industry. See, since the shuttle program was ended a few years ago, the space agency has also been stuck depending on the Russians to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. That was all very well and good, but when things really got tense between Russia and the United States last year it even filtered down to those rides with the cosmonauts.
So NASA set out to fix it, with most of the effort focused on farming the whole thing out to private companies. Eventually, Boeing and SpaceX were selected to actually build the rockets that will transport astronauts. And that's where the issue comes in because the watchdog group, NASA's safety advisory panel, issued a report last week complaining about the lack of transparency from both NASA and the two companies working on the commercial crew project.
It's worth keeping in mind that this safety advisory panel was created in the wake of one of NASA's first real disasters. Putting a person in space and going to the moon may seem like cliché stuff these days, but back in the 1950s and 1960s when the United States started working on space travel, it was dicey and dangerous work. Tom Wolfe summed it up best in The Right Stuff with the refrain he wove through his book on those early days of the space program: "Our rockets always blow up."
Still, things seemed to be going pretty well until the
attempted launch rehearsal of Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967. A fire broke out and the three astronauts aboard were burned to death right on the launchpad in front of the world.* The safety advisory panel was set up shortly after that incident to keep the agency in check and make sure things were being run so that such a tragedy would never happen again. In recent years the safety advisory panel has grown increasingly critical of NASA, as the WSJ has noted, but the group really came out with guns blazing this time.
According to the report, the biggest red flag the safety advisory panel is seeing is coming from NASA's commercial crew sector. The commercial crew program isn't being as open as the safety panel would like. And why is transparency important? Mainly because in the wake of both the Challenger and the Columbia disasters, the advisory panel found that a lack of communication and the lack of transparency were part of what caused those disasters, as pointed out by Florida Today.
The watchdog group says it has been blocked from assessing hardware safety or the adequacy of government oversight on the new $5 billion development project. NASA officials attempted to explain the lack of openness away, by claiming that they were protecting proprietary information that couldn't be shared with the safety advisory panel. The group called the secrecy "very troubling" according to the Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, NASA officials are coming off as downright Pollyanna-esque about everything. NASA officials brushed off the criticisms from the panel. According to NASA chief Charles Bolden, they are an agency with direction and purpose and with the help of private companies we'll see NASA astronauts lifting off from U.S. soil by 2017. The thing is, Bolden also claimed that NASA's current foray into the world of privately built space stuff has gone exceedingly well, and that the missions to transport supplies to the International Space Station on private rockets has gone off without a hitch.
Obviously, Bolden and the other NASA officials have pretty short memories, since it was just a couple of months ago that an Orbital rocket packed with ISS supplies and carefully designed science projects from school children lurched off a Virginia launchpad and then rather ignominiously exploded. Boom.
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Somehow it seems to us like a program that had such a spectacular, and recent, explosion in it can't entirely be counted a total success, but that's not how Bolden is looking at it (and it probably helps his case that Orbital is not one of the companies working on the commercial crew stuff).
In fact, by Bolden's interpretation, everything is coming up roses at NASA and they are (finally) an agency moving toward the future. "That the idea we're adrift is an empty hook trying to catch yesterday's fish," Bolden said, according to Space. "I couldn't be more excited about our future. We're making steady progress and continuing to reach for new heights."
All of that optimism would be downright adorable if we didn't have to contend with the fact that it will eventually -- possibly even by the 2017 deadline -- lead to NASA astronauts sitting on top of commercially built rockets potentially built with the same lack of transparency that led to some of the worst disasters in the history of NASA.
12:45 p.m. Thursday Correction: The post has been corrected to reflect that the Apollo 1 fire happened during a training exercise, not a launch.