When will NASA learn to learn from history?

If you were to look back at the US space programme, especially with the Space Shuttle, there are two things you would be very careful about making statements on, timetables and safety.

From the earliest days of manned spaceflight declaring something would launch at a certain time was a hazardous affair, almost as hazardous as the launch itself.

John Glenn’s orbital flight’s10 delays caused immense embarrassment, as one Mercury and Apollo veteran, still exasperated at the problems they had had forty years ago, admitted to me recently.

The Apollo programme’s flights to the Moon, a tremendous feat considering every thing that went wrong during the missions, began with the death of the astronauts, Ed White, Roger Chaffee and ‘Gus’ Grissom on the launch pad for Apollo 1.

That tragic event delayed the programme, as did Apollo 13′s near loss of its three crew in 1970, delaying the launch of Apollo 14 to 1971.

With the Shuttle programme timetable delays and risk did not become a thing of the past.

Supposed to fly in 1979 the producers of the James Bond film Moonraker, which had Shuttle as a central plot element, were a bit put out that their attempt of a marketing coup by releasing the film at the same time the world’s first space plane was to have had its maiden flight, was undone by NASA’s thermal protection system problems.

With tile issues overcome 1981 saw its fantastic first flight, another historic moment up there with the Wright brothers. When will we see anything like it again?

In those early years Shuttle looked great, each year it increased its number of flights and then Shuttle Challenger exploded 72s into its 28 January 1986 launch.

The US Air Force abandoned its plans for its own fleet of Shuttles and NASA’s annual flight rate has never been as good as the nine it flew in 1985.

Neither did it improve its safety as the Shuttle Columbia crew died on re-entry on 1 February 2003 when their Orbiter broke up.

So the Shuttle is to be abandoned by 2010 and now we have the Constellation programme’s Orion spaceship, with its Apollo-like crew and service module.

When Orion was known as Crew Exploration Vehicle and before the current NASA administrator Michael Griffin was onboard the agency was talking of a 2014 first manned flight time frame.

How the agency came up with this year is anyone’s guess. There was a five year gap between the flight of the last Saturn IB and the last Apollo spacecraft for the Apollo-Soyuz project and Shuttle Columbia’s 1981 maiden launch and I guess they just wanted to slightly improve on that.

Anyhow when Michael Griffin became administrator he straight away started talking about improving on that timetable. Reducing the gap between Shuttle and Orion was a much touted goal.

But now it’s all sounding a bit hollow. Now we know that NASA does not believe it will shorten the expected four-year gap between Shuttle and Orion.

But not because of the capsule. Lockheed may well achieve its stated goal of an Orion spaceship ready to fly in 2012, but the launcher won’t be there to boost it.

Constellation’s planners has even built into its timetable a gap of about a year between its receipt of the first Orion and its receipt of the first Ares I, the launch vehicle. This is even when NASA has decided it’s responsible for the integration of Ares I’s first and second stages. NASA hasn’t officially admitted that 2014 will be a great achievement to get Orion flying, if it can achieve that. Expect that admission sometime in the next 12 months.

But what of safety? Constellation officials expect us to believe that the Ares/Orion system will have a one in 2000 flight safety record. In other words one in 2000 flights could see a fatality and with a well known technology such as capsules, maybe it’s possible.

But when officials throw this into the public domain and at the same time refer to the Shuttle programme’s original claim of a safety level of one in 200 flights, when there have been two catastrophic accidents in less than 120 missions, I lose my sense of humour.

My history teacher at school used to love telling us that “we learn from history that we never learn from history.”

But with numerous degrees you would hope that NASA administrator Michael Griffin could.

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