Editor’s Note: In recent days, the national media has been filled with wild speculation concerning the shuttle disaster. Much of this has been supported by “experts” who are unrelated to NASA and whose primary virtue is that they will not or cannot deny wild speculations by reporters. Their comments are still welcome, but only when they are balanced by people who work for the program. It’s called “fair comment” and it’s a basic tenet of responsible journalism. Dr. Kenneth Baldwin of UC Irvine is a biophysicist and one of four UC professors who serve on the NASA Advisory Council, which reports directly to the agency administrator. Here is what he had to say.
-Josh Braun, science editor
How did the disaster impact you personally and how do you think your involvement with NASA affected your reaction?
Well, obviously I was devastated by hearing of the disaster here. It impacted me personally because I’ve had a lot of experience with the agency, both from the standpoint of conducting four flight missions in which I had opportunities to interact with these wonderful and talented people that we call the astronauts – and so that had a real sting in my side – and the fact that I spent considerable time with the agency dealing with the impact of long-term space flight on humans. And so by being so connected, I felt that I was part of that family and that I lost seven wonderful people within that family.
What possible changes do you see coming in the space program as a result of the Columbia crash? I know everything is up in the air at this point, but how will you be involved in what comes next? Are there any courses of action that you plan on advocating with regards to the accident investigation or the larger restructuring of parts of the space program?
Well, my involvement will be through my activities on the NASA Advisory Council, the NAC, in terms of how they will provide insight and recommendations to the administrator, Sean O’Keefe. That will be determined in terms of what the agendas are that will be put forward to the NAC in terms of working with NASA on the various problems that NASA will be faced with.
Secondly, I am involved as chair of the Biological and Physical Research and Advisory Committee looking at that office which deals with bioastronautics, space biology and physical research, providing advice for their long-term strategic plan and how they will get on beyond this tragedy to establish their implementation plan for the vision they have for the next 10 years.
And so, while this has been a really devastating experience, I think it’s safe to say that based on everything that I have learned, both directly and indirectly, that NASA will move on. They will solve the problem of this tragedy. They’ll try to correct it. And hopefully resources will be put on the plate by this country. If they want to continue human space flight experiences [they need to ensure] that the resources will be there in order to enable them to continue with their vision. So on the one hand we’ve had a tragedy, but on the other hand there are going to be, I think, increasing commitments by the government and by the human public in which to continue this mission.
I’m too far away from a lot of the engineering and the things of that sort that I could offer at this stage any specific advice in that regard. But I feel that everything must be done in order to ensure astronaut health and safety. And I think this has always been at the forefront within the agency.
But over time, sometimes some of these things will lose their impact at the expense of trying to live within the budget means. And I think the agency must take a realistic look at what it costs in order to do these types of projects and then put the resources there. You can’t do these things with what I would call a half-baked commitment. It’s either all or none.
Do you think the crash is in any way related to funding cutbacks in the shuttle program that might have prevented the carrying out of safety recommendations on the shuttle or placed limits on the size of the workforce that was maintaining the shuttle?
It’s hard to say right now. I’ve heard two theories. Number one, some of the shielding came off the rocket component to the launching system there and that might have dinged the system and created a blemish that would be difficult to detect. In hindsight that might be something that they have to take a real hard look at in terms of policy and so forth.
On the other hand, there’s another theory circulating that this may have occurred from space debris that one can encounter above the earth’s immediate atmosphere. If it’s space debris or something that has broken off from a meteorite and it’s just floating there, it’s like driving an automobile down the street and having a big sequoia tree fall over and crush you while you’re in the car. So there are some things that are within the safety strategies of the agency and other things that are just the fate of what happens.
Do you think the space shuttle was still spaceworthy or do you think it was too old to be flying? The engineers that I’ve talked to and others I’ve seen quoted all said it was still in very good condition. But there are also sources elsewhere that have pointed out the effects of aging like corrosion to the structural frame, 10 percent of which was inaccessible during maintenance. Other reports cited problems with waterproofing and tile adhesion.
You would have to get your perspective from individuals that are closer to that type of problem and analysis from an engineering-structural design standpoint; something of that nature. I’m not qualified to really draw any conclusions there.
And frankly, unless you work with that type of machinery, that type of engineering, that type of electronics and all the other things, most people can only speculate unless you’re really working at the forefront and with that type of system.
Do you think there’s going to be any fallout concerning Sean O’Keefe? I know a lot of the budget cutbacks in recent years resulted from his tenure at the Office of Management and Budget.
Recently Henry McDonald claimed in the L.A. Times that his 2000 report on problems with the shuttle was not given full weight because Sean O’Keefe took office and started cutting budgets – though this may be sour grapes: he was laid off recently. [NASA’s previous administrator] Dan Goldin also had a history of budget cuts over his tenure. So I’m wondering what you think the fallout is going to be given O’Keefe’s budget-minded approach to space exploration and Dan Goldin’s for that matter.
Well, it’s too early to tell. I know that Sean O’Keefe was put in there primarily for his ability to take organizations that are being managed poorly and bringing them up to speed so that they are fiscally responsive. And I think O’Keefe is doing that.
Now, whether the current government organization and leadership in Washington will continue with a mantra that “you have to live within the means that we’re going to give you” – then maybe this is indeed what will happen. But I think, I hope, there’s a lesson to be learned from this: that if you’re going to do something, you’ve got to do it right and often times that means you’ve got to put the necessary resources into the equation.
A case in point is: If you’re going to go to war, and you want to make sure that you have all those resources in place, I don’t see the United States’ military-industrial complex flinching on making sure that we have everything available in order to do the job. And I think the same thing applies if you’re going to have a manned space flight organization. If your dream is to put the human condition into space and let it evolve, then you’ve got to put the necessary resources there. Otherwise you might as well close the agency down.
Do you think there will be a next generation of space vehicles coming any time soon?
My suspicion is that, if you’re going to continue with the vision of a human presence in space – and given the aging factor that is already apparent with regard to the shuttles – you’ve got to evolve to the next generation, rather than trying to build more of what you have, because that would imply that you have to turn over this fleet because I think anything has a definitive half-life. So that being said, I think there has to be a plan in which to move to the next generation. What that infrastructure will be as far as a spacecraft, I have no idea of what will go on there. But we have great minds probably working that equation. It’s a matter of coming back to resources. Getting the resources to fit the mission.
I always realize that when I come to the table with a pre-written set of topics, people generally have something that they feel is most important and that it may not be covered by something I’ve asked. So is there anything you’d like to add?
The only thing that I would like to add at this stage is that there is a lot of science that takes place in the agency that supports the human experience in space and general research that tries to understand how living creatures exist in the unique environment of gravity, and how that existence in gravity provides insights into what is happening to the average person living here in one G on earth.
And what I have sensed is that there has been a lot of cynicism in the news – both on television and in the newspapers – that basically are saying that what is being done in the science arena within NASA is not worth the seven lives that were lost in this tragic accident.
And I think that this is a real big shortcoming of those individuals that are in the journalistic area that are basically looking for sensationalism in order to call question to what is going on in that agency.
To take an analogy, if every piece of research that took place at the National Institute of Health- all the experiments that failed relative to those that gave us insights in terms of the causes of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc. – you would say that the investment in health sciences-related research isn’t worth a dollar of investment because you have so many losses relative to the gains that you get. But the primary gain that you get helps to better mankind, breaks through and gives us the insights that we have. And so you can’t look at research with narrow views and basically with blinders on. Research doesn’t operate that way and what I’m sensing is that there are a lot of people taking negative views on what’s going in within the NASA agency. And they don’t deserve the bad press that they’re getting right now.
So I appreciate you giving me a chance to state my views. That’s a credit to you as a journalist, taking care of your end of the business and trying to make it worthwhile in carrying out your assignments. So I appreciate the time you have given me and the opportunity to exchange comments and ideas with you.