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Home >> Life
UPDATED: 08:42, January 19, 2006
US astronaut's memoir questions space shuttle safety
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WASHINGTON: 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.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (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 an 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 II."

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 humour, 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 jeopardise 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 cannot do that at NASA because there's no other place to go fly shuttles."

Columbia accident investigators called this reluctance to make waves a "broken safety culture" at the US 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.

Chosen as a shuttle mission specialist, Mullane flew three missions.

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.

Source: China Daily

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