Chair Force Engineer

Monday, June 26, 2006

No Guts, No Griffin

Michael Griffin is taking a lot of heat for his personal decision to let Discovery fly on STS-121, perhaps as soon as this Saturday. The New York Times opposes the choice (which usually means I will agree with NASA.) Several NASA officials have broken ranks and publicly criticized the decision (in the same vein as James Hansen, the climatologist who claimed that NASA was censoring his controversial views.)

I usually take the opinion that members of an organization should have the class to avoid public criticism of their organization and leadership. (Then again, many would argue that Chair Force Engineer is a scathing and irreverent indictment of the US Air Force.) Still, there are extreme situations that warrant public dissent, such as the Challenger launch decision, when there are extreme repercussions for not speaking out against a dangerous decision.

From day one, Michael Griffin has been forthcoming with the public on the dangers of spaceflight, particularly those of the shuttle. The shuttle is a hopelessly complex machine that could never achieve its goals of safe, routine spaceflight. Griffin explicitly said that the shuttle and ISS were mistakes, before being forced to backpedal by angry employees of NASA and the United Space Alliance.

At the same time, Michael Griffin is willing to accept the shuttle for its flaws and accept a certain amount of risk. If we wait for everything on the shuttle that could go wrong to be fixed, STS-121 will probably be delayed past 2014, by which point the safer Crew Exploration Vehicle will already be flying.

This begs the question, what is acceptable risk? My answer would be that "acceptable" risk would be a level of risk that the crew would be willing to accept. I think that threshold is pretty low, based on talking to college friends (now Air Force pilots) who would accept a space mission even if it was certain to mean suicide. Of course, a twenty-something, testosterone-fueled, bachelor jet-jockey probably has a lower appreciation for his own life than a seasoned test pilot with a family to worry about.

Of course, the crew's safety should always be the highest priority, and in the case of STS-121, it still is. Even Bryan O'Connor, a straight-shooter who criticized the lack of safety during the Shuttle-Mir missions, feels that the crew has adequate backups in the form of the space station safe haven. Perhaps the threat to the orbiter may be overstated as well. It's been rumored that a secretive system to auto-land a disabled orbiter has been installed in Discovery.

Michael Griffin's decision boiled down to this: if we see any value in continuing the space shuttle program, we should be able to accept a certain amount of risk, even if that risk is higher than we would like in an ideal world. If we are not willing to take that risk, let's quit wasting $7 bil per year on the shuttle and ISS. For that matter, let's not take the dangerous risk of flying to the moon. Let's stay in the safe cradle of the earth where Mommy and Daddy will take care of us (until overpopulation, an environmental catastrophe, or asteroids make the earth unlivable in its present form.)

Let's light this candle. Go, hot dog, go! Godspeed Discovery, and may this mission bring us closer to leaving the cradle.