January 17, 2006

Astronaut’s memoir questions US space shuttle safety

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Astronaut Mike Mullane has flown on
the shuttle three times and would go again in a heartbeat, but
in a new memoir he called this ship the most dangerous
spacecraft humans have ever ridden.

NASA's bureaucracy helped make it that way, he said, by
discouraging questions about safety and other matters.
Astronauts deserve some share of responsibility too, Mullane
said in a Reuters interview about his book "Riding Rockets,"
published this month

"It's the most dangerous manned spacecraft ever flown, by
anybody," said 60-year-old Mullane, who retired from NASA in
1990. "And I say that because it has no powered-flight escape
system ... Basically the bailout system we have on the shuttle
is the same bailout system a B-17 bomber pilot had in World War

A powered-flight escape system that would have blasted
shuttle astronauts from the doomed craft might have saved the
Challenger crew when that shuttle exploded seconds after launch
on January 28, 1986, Mullane said.

It probably would not have been able to keep the Columbia
crew alive as their ship disintegrated on re-entry on February
1, 2003. These two disasters claimed 14 lives.

"That was the true tragedy of Challenger: Nothing was
learned. Columbia was a repeat of Challenger, where people had
a known design problem" and launched anyway, Mullane said.

Despite the book's rollicking tone and self-deprecating
humor, Mullane has a serious point to make: That astronauts
with a competitive urge and a compulsion to fly hesitated to
raise questions because they thought bucking NASA's bureaucracy
would keep them from getting into orbit.


"I survived as we all survived: I kept my mouth shut, I
endured ... You walk in terrified of doing anything that might
jeopardize your one chance to get to space," he said. "It's not
like other jobs, where if you get frustrated you can go in to
your boss and say, 'Take this job and shove it!' You can't do
that at NASA because there's no other place to go fly

Columbia accident investigators called this reluctance to
make waves a "broken safety culture" at the U.S. space agency.

Mullane agreed, even though he was part of it, as a member
of the astronaut class of 1978, the first to ride the shuttle.

"We were bitterly angry and disgusted with our management,"
Mullane wrote of astronauts' attitudes after the Challenger
accident. "In our criticisms, we ignored our own mad thirst for
flight ... Only janitors and cafeteria workers at NASA were
blameless in the deaths of the Challenger seven."

Mullane's own thirst for space flight began in childhood
and continued through his selection as an astronaut. Since his
retirement, he has written children's books about space and
works as a motivational speaker.

The autobiographical book opens with a vivid account of his
drive to be the best applicant for the corps, down to his
preparation for a proctological exam.

"Yes, I was going to give this astronaut selection my best
shot," Mullane wrote. "I was determined when the NASA
proctologist looked up my ass, he would see pipes so dazzling
he would ask the nurse to get his sunglasses."


Further humiliations lay ahead, like the time Mullane tried
on a NASA-issued condom -- used for urine collection in
weightlessness -- and watched the too-large sheath drop off and
fall to the floor.

"I'll have you know I've fathered three children with
this!" is what Mullane wanted to shout to the condom-fitting
technician but didn't. A complaint might have derailed his
selection as an astronaut.

Chosen as a shuttle mission specialist, Mullane flew three
missions, logging 356 hours aboard Discovery and Atlantis.

The shuttle never lived up to its billing as a reliable
space workhorse, and the fleet has been grounded since the
Columbia crash, except for one shakedown flight to the
International Space Station last summer.

Even then, the same problem that plagued Columbia --
falling foam insulation that struck the orbiter on launch --
recurred, prompting more trouble-shooting. The next shuttle
launch is tentatively set for May.

Mullane acknowledged that the shuttle's ability to lift
heavy loads into orbit made such marvels as the space station
and the Hubble Space Telescope possible.

The three remaining shuttles are supposed to retire in 2010
after completing construction on the orbiting space station,
which has been operating with a skeleton crew of two since the
Columbia accident.

A replacement for the shuttles is being designed. One
version would look a lot like the big stacked rockets that sent
Apollo astronauts to the Moon, a design Mullane agreed could
work, so long as there is a powered-flight escape system.

And yes, he would go again if he could. But he acknowledged
that he would not be essential to any shuttle mission now, and
for that reason, he should not be on the flight.