Civilian flights could backfire for NASA

After winning the space race, NASA stopped sending astronauts to the moon. Instead, in the 1970s, the space agency turned to building and launching space shuttles. A decade later, in 1986, Americans were given new reason to question the value of manned space exploration. On Jan. 26, shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing its crew of seven. Christa McCauliffe, a high school teacher, was among the dead. For many years after that, space officials eschewed sending further civilians into orbit. But last month, NASA chose Sen. Jon Glenn, D-Ohio, a hero of the early space program, to join a shuttle flight scheduled for October. Barbara Morgan, a third-grade teacher in McCall, Idaho, will get to do the same two years from now.
NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin insists that substantial safety modifications allow the agency to resume civilian flight. But faded memories of the Challenger disaster have also made it possible to make such plans. Flawed booster seals in the craft led to the explosion, serving as a reminder that space travel bears inherent risks. However, NASA’s compromising of safety rules, which contributed to the tragedy, could have been averted. In fact, the presence of a civilian on a celebrated mission might have contributed to the Challenger disaster; NASA officials disregarded warnings from flight engineers and agency regulations to launch in record-cold temperatures. The flight had already been delayed, and officials were loath to push it back any further. The cold that morning caused the explosion.
Today, NASA officials argue that by investing more than $5 billion in improving safety, they have made shuttles more reliable. The risk to astronauts, they assert, has been greatly reduced. But even NASA’s top safety experts point out that this claim is exaggerated. In 1995, a NASA study by Science Applications International Corporation estimated that there is one chance in 248 that catastrophe will result during launch. The risk of disaster for the whole flight is one in 145 — a number that has not changed in three years.
The Glenn and Morgan flights could focus attention on NASA the way that McCauliffe’s flight did in 1986. This might help the space agency augment its budget, which has declined from $16.8 billion in 1991 to $13.6 billion today. But Goldin flatly denies that putting a senator and teacher in space are budget ploys. Instead, he points out, it demonstrates NASA’s effort to diversify its astronaut corps. He adds that this policy will encourage research in aging and other areas, as well as allow educators to share a unique learning experience with their students.
Clearly, NASA is making a conscious effort to widen its astronaut ranks to include civilians. While this might be as noble a policy as Goldin suggests, the stakes for the agency will be disproportionately higher with civilians on board. The material effects of another Challenger will not change because Glenn or Morgan is on board. But the potential cost in terms of public trust and congressional support will be magnified. Ordinary Americans who haven’t seen a shuttle launch on television in a decade will be watching if a famous civilian is on board. If something goes wrong, people will have lost another friend to the space shuttle. That could be too high a price for NASA to pay.